By Jaime Jo Wright, Crosswalk.com
It's almost comical to be writing an article about keeping communication with your teenager "open" when teenagers so often hang out the proverbial "closed" sign. Have you ever tried to break into a teenager's wave of communication? It takes finesse, a lot of Mission Impossible, and an excess of linguistical skill. Teenagers have their own language, and I'm not just referencing their slang words. It's not scientific by any means, but if I had to wager a guess, I'd say teen-speak is about 80% body language, 10% sighs and expulsions of air, and 10% audible and intelligible words. And that's when they're talking to you. Again, this is about keeping communication open with your teenager—meaning, the bedroom door hasn't slammed in your face, and they haven't developed an intense fascination with their feet while you're trying to tell them something.
Do you remember when you had your first baby? Everyone was so quick to give you the long list of the "just wait til's," and you went from glorying in parenthood to dreading the moment your child morphed from cute infant to screaming banshee? There's a "just wait til" list for teenagers too. You'll get that list soon enough—if you haven't already. Teenagers are notorious for perplexing, aggravating, and almost annihilating parents.
But it doesn't have to be that way!
There. I said it. I did. And no one can come back on me and say, "You don't know what it's like until you raise a teenager yourself." Here's the short list of my qualifications: 20+ years of youth ministry, almost five years of camping ministry, experience substitute teaching 6th grade, AND I am currently in possession of a teenager in my home. My child. Needless to say, I have had years of experience communicating with teenagers, and it's not as difficult as adults/parents make it out to be. Sure, sure. There are anomalies and exceptions to every rule. But I want to give you some ways to keep that communication open with your teenager and give your teenager hope that you, as a parent, haven't taken a dive off the weird end.
1. Don't Be a Teenager
Parents, I will say this once and leave it at that. Don't be a teenager in order to gain your teenager's trust and openness. What do I mean? I mean, avoid trying to be "cool" or trying to get on your kid's level by inserting yourself into situations as though you're their buddy or peer. You're not. You're their parent. And while they may not like that part of your role, it's your role. You will pretty much ace the test of annoying parent when you try to be like your teen and their friends. This will induce copious amounts of eye-rolling, and worse, your teenager will prefer to avoid bringing their friends around you.
Whether your teen will admit it or even realize it, they want you to be their parent. They want the steady consistency of a disciplined parent, one who holds them to guidelines and morals and good choices, and one who—while allowing them to explore who they're becoming as new adults—also helps hold them accountable to the foundations you began building in them as a child.
This doesn't mean you can't be a fun parent. It just means you need to continue the maturity of a parent. Having fun with your teenagers and their friends is a fabulous way to build trust and provide an environment where your teen can feel safe and not censured by their parents. While at the same time, instinctively knowing you're still going to hold them to the boundaries you've set and the moral/ethical standards that are important to their becoming adults.
2. Don't Be a Reloader
This means, simply, listen to your kid! It sounds like such a basic concept, and yet parents can be the worst at this. Especially with their teenagers. Here's an example of what I mean: a teenager will come up with the dumbest and most inane excuses ever to justify an action, an opinion, a request, and so on. As parents, we expect that. In fact, we expect it so much that we instantly assume that we know what is going to come out of their mouth. So while they are talking and expressing themselves, we're "reloading"—meaning—figuring out what to say to put them in their place, correct them, instruct them, etc.
Reloading takes a lot of concentration. More so than you think. So while you think you're listening to your teen while you're formulating your response, in reality, you're formulating your response and probably, at best, halfway listening to your teen. You might hear their words, but you're likely to miss their inflections, body language, and subtle cues that give you insight into a proper response.
So stop it! Stop reloading and hurrying ahead to figure out what to say next. Your teen will notice when you stop to listen to them. When you really listen. This means making eye contact, perhaps even repeating what you think you heard them say and mean, and asking for clarification. When you do this, you may start to hear that your teenager is actually coming up with intelligent and even logical reasoning for their thoughts. Insert parental guidance and affirmation; your teenager might just be shocked that you listened to them.
And if you still can't approve of what they're saying, now you can respond in kind with an accurate perception of why they said what they said and walk them through your own thought process.
3. Stop Being an Emotional Knee-Jerk Reactor
Parents are triggered by the mere fact their kid is a teenager. A lot of it is fear that creates this triggered response. So, when your teenager does something you're not a fan of, or they ask for something you're totally against, instead of responding rationally and with a conversation, we react. Reactions create emotional tension, and emotional tension creates familial nuclear wars. It just does!
Teenagers are already primed emotionally. When a parent becomes emotionally primed and ready to go off, then it's an explosion waiting to happen. This results in yelling, arguments, and often that closed door in your face.
This doesn't mean you can't have emotions as a parent. You can! But this means it's your time to engage in emotional maturity. Step back. Breathe if you need to. Put some distance between you and the situation and let your teen know you need to "think about it" for a bit. A teenager may still not appreciate your answer, but they will appreciate that you didn't just react.
Reacting negatively and impulsively will break down trust. It will lead to your child refusing to talk to you, confide in you, and ask you questions. They simply won't trust that they're not kicking a hornet's nest. And who wants to kick a hornet's nest?
But if they learn they can come to you and, though they may not get the response they want, they also don't get a volatile reaction that sends them running to their room, it's more likely that they'll come to you!
Okay, so this is high-level stuff. I get that. But your teenager needs to know they can trust you. That you aren't going to try to come down to their level and won't gloss over what they're saying, and, finally, that you're not going to react emotionally.
In short, what our teenagers from us are what we want from them. Consideration, appreciation, validation, and respect. Engaging in these? You'll have that bedroom open a crack—and maybe more.