I would like to thank Mary and Michelle, who are among the hundreds of parents that have shared their stories with me. I am honored and grateful that they have allowed me to share pieces of their stories with you. They are stories of parent-teen relationship recovery and resilience; stories of trial, tribulation, patience, courage, perseverance, and HOPE. They are stories that all parents of preteens and teens can relate to. One of the most important messages conveyed in the hope-filled stories shared by Mary and Michelle is that, no matter how “good” or how “bad” things are between children and their parents, things can be BETTER. – Steve de Groot
We captured their stories to share with you on video. You can view them on the Getting to Better YouTube Channel by following the links below.
[highlight-yellow]Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
The above sentiment from Elizabeth Stone helps confirm why the chests of many parents/caregivers’ hurt so much during their children’s preteen and teenage years. Adolescence can be an exciting, adventurous and rewarding time for both teens and their caregivers; however, because it is a time of massive change, the road to adulthood can also be quite stressful and fraught with many challenges. This newsletter was inspired and informed by work with over 1000 teenagers and hundreds of parents. It is intended to provide insight and practical suggestions for parents to be better equipped to hold on to their children; their hearts.
Our children, like our hearts are safer when they are close. How do we keep our kids close? We keep our kids close by connecting with them. We connect best with our children when we build safe, respectful and nurturing relationships. The best way to connect and build relationships is by getting to know our children; their uniqueness, strengths, opinions, values, goals, fears, concerns, sensitivities, limitations. The better we know our children, the better able we are to respond and support them as they enter the teen years and navigate the challenging road to adulthood.
It is important to get to know our children, but even more crucial during their preteen and teen years. This is so, because at this point in their lives almost everything is changing for them. They are experiencing rapid and extensive physical, mental, emotional and social changes; which alter how they look, think, feel and experience themselves, others and the world around them. One parent described her experience regarding her daughter, “Sheila went up stairs on her 13th birthday. Oh ya, someone came down. We’re just not sure who that is yet. We haven’t seen Sheila since. It’s been 3 years!” Sheila’s parents, not unlike Mary and Michelle, had to learn about their teens; to get to know them again. Getting to know children, as they move through their teen years, can only happen through communication and in relationship.
According to many parents and caregivers getting kids to talk can be one of the most difficult tasks. And when they do talk, are they telling us what is really going on? Mary and Michelle, like many parents I have worked with dispel a very common myth; that teens don’t want to talk to their caregivers. This is not the case – Teens need to talk to parents; they want to talk to parents. The following insights, based on thousands of conversations with youth not only debunk the myth that youth do not want to talk to us, they offer parents tangible considerations for strengthening the relationship and getting our kids to share.
You Don’t Listen! You Don’t Understand! You Don’t Care!
If you are a parent of a preteen or teen there is a good chance you have heard one or more of the following: “You don’t listen!” You don’t understand!” “You don’t care!” If you haven’t heard these statements yet, there is a good chance you will. These utterances are so common that over 3000 caregivers, when surveyed, were able to complete all three sentences when the third word in each statement was left blank – 100% Accuracy! Wow! How common is this?!
Most kids will express similar sentiments and experiences. Sometimes it’s because they are mad, upset or feel like hurting us. Often however, it is because THEY are really feeling this way. It is important to keep in mind, a youth’s perception is THEIR experience not ours, regardless what we think. If our youth really experience that we are not listening, we don’t understand or that we don’t care as much as they would like us to; this can become a serious problem for them and ultimately for us. When it comes to talking to us, the more a youth feels that we are not listening, we do not understand or we do not care for them in a way that THEY would prefer, they will be less likely to talk with us.
I have worked with enough parents and caregivers to know they do their best and they do care. It may be impossible to eliminate the “you don’t” experiences and expressions from our youth, but we should do our best to reduce them as much as possible.
Creating Conditions for Kids to Talk to Us
Four Key Ingredients:
ACCEPTANCE and UNDERSTANDING – TRUST and RESPECT
I am often asked by parents, “How can I get my kid to talk to me?” or “How long will it take?” My answers can sometimes be unsatisfying when I state, “It will happen when it happens.” Or “It takes as longs as it takes.” What I have come to understand is that youth will talk and share with us when it is SAFE; that means when they feel that they will not be judged or criticised for their experiences or for what they are willing to share. Getting youth to talk with us is dependent upon key factors that create the conditions for youth to share. The four key ingredients that foster youth openness are Acceptance and Understanding, Trust and Respect.
When youth feel Accepted and Understood they will be more likely to share. Acceptance and Understanding do not mean that we agree with what they are doing or saying, it means that we are trying to understand and accept their perspective or their experiences as being valuable, legitimate and important to them.
The more a youth is able to Trust and Respect you, as well as feel respected and trusted by you, the more likely he/she will communicate clearly and openly his/her strengths, ideas, or concerns, allowing you to provide the best possible support and guidance. We are better able to keep our youth close when we get to know them and how they experience their world.
Regardless of the youth or the approach taken with them, open and honest communication that is characterized by Acceptance and Understanding, Trust and Respect will be much more conducive to fostering BETTER parent-teen communication.
Additional Tips on Getting Youth to Engage with Us in Conversation
- Start early! The younger, the BETTER
- Keep conversations light at first; focus on things they are interested in
- Make sure positive conversations outweigh talking about difficult issues
- Saying something appreciative or affirming like, “thanks for helping out’, “I like hanging out with you’ or “I love you”
- Talk about their strengths, what they do well and what it is you appreciate about them (this will increase the likelihood that they feel good about talking to you and it may increase their willingness, in the future, to approach you to share)
- Understand that most youth prefer to talk when they are not Face-to-Face, but rather walking, on a long drive (going for a slushie helps), or sharing side by side in an activity that is conducive to talking (at a restaurant for dinner, after a movie, sewing, playing a game; building something)
- Remember that teens really like food; talking while having something to eat ensures a captive audience and fosters conditions that are enjoyable and conducive to connecting
- Listen more than talk
Five Steps to Get Closer to Better
Over 1000 preteens and teens have shared their stories with me and my team. Through the years, regardless of the youth’s situation or context (middle class, affluent, foster home, in-care of family services, group home) they have clearly indicated that they would be more open to sharing if parents/ caregivers would engage more in the following:
- ASK THEM
- LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN
- TAKE WHAT THEY SAY SERIOUSLY
- ACT ON IT – FOLLOW THROUGH
The remainder of the article will elaborate further on the 5 steps and some practical suggestions for increasing the successful engagement and communication with youth:
1. ASK THEM
According to teens, they would like us to ask more. They indicate that it is when things are not going well that we get involved; but even then we don’t ask how they are doing or Check-in on what they may need. Some youth have relayed that even when things are going well we don’t ask how they are doing, or what is going on for them.
Many parents are afraid to ask how their kids are doing. Parents worry about whether they want to know or can handle what’s going on with their kids. Therefore, it seems better to not know. Often caregivers are afraid of the worst; that they are not doing it right. They definitely don’t want to hear their children say, “You suck!” or “I hate you!” This can really hurt. Sometimes it is because of these and other fears that parents hesitate or avoid asking their youth about how they are doing.
What does it mean to “ask them”? Asking them means exactly that; ask them about everything related to their experiences. You may even want to ask them about the things you think you already know. Like Mary and Michelle, you may be surprised about some of the things you learn. Don’t be afraid to ask them – if you care for them, there is a good chance that they will care for you in return. Here are some things to consider:
- Make time and don’t do it when you are hurried
- Suspend your assumption about what you think they may say
- Ask them – do not tell them
- Ask about non- threatening things first (movies, games, hobbies) and gradually move as they open up more, into areas of important issues
- Keep it safe – open, warm, interested, genuine, non-judgmental
- Be OK, if they are not ready to share – if it is important, they will
- Be prepared that you may not like what you hear at first – hang in there, hear them out
2. LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN.
This is critical; so critical that it is stated 3 times! More than 80% of communication is non-verbal. Some of the best communicators are the best listeners; not necessarily the ones who are doing all of the talking. The reason why this step is so essential is because it is the number one complaint most teens have about their parents. It may be the most difficult step, especially when youth are providing feedback.
The two most common responses by adults when youth share critical or opinionated feedback are DEFENSIVE and/or DISMISSIVE responses. Defensive and dismissive responses are among the biggest barriers to youth sharing. Parents need to do whatever they can to stay calm and not react with a defensive or dismissive response.
Listening is the key to learning about a youth’s experience. Remember that when you are listening you are conveying that they are important and what they are saying is important. Here are some things to consider:
- Make sure you have time, or make the time
(However, if you do run out of time despite efforts then say, “I would like to hear more about this later….”)
- Stay calm
- Do not speak while they are sharing
- Do not defend what they are saying
- Do not dismiss or minimize their experience
- Save your comments or questions for when they are done
- Active listen or paraphrase to convey that you are listening
(you reflect or state back what your youth is saying so that they know for sure you have heard them)
- Try to hear them out
(if you have to engage, use statements like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What is that like for you?”)
3. TAKE WHAT THEY SAY SERIOUSLY
This does not mean that everything they say is absolutely true. However, there is something in what they are saying or trying to communicate. No matter what it is, there is some element of truth – we need to pay attention to that, or find out what that is. If it wasn’t important they wouldn’t be saying it. Remember, THEIR story is coming from THEIR perception; THEIR experience. It is not necessarily “wrong” or “right”. Here are some things to consider:
- Stay calm
- Try to take their position or their perspective
- Suspend your assumptions and judgement
- Do not defend what is being said
- Do not dismiss what is being said
- Do not debate or argue
- Be open to the fact that they may have something to teach YOU
4. ACT ON IT – FOLLOW THROUGH
Acting on what is said by youth can mean anything from just listening to taking action on something that is important to them. Simply saying, “Thanks for sharing this with me. Do you think/feel that there is anything that you would like me to do?” – This is acting on it. Many youth just want to be heard. They may not necessarily want their parents to intervene, or do anything at all. All too often youth tell parents something and parents take the matter into their hands and get involved and act without the youth’s knowledge or consent. BE CAREFUL! This can damage the relationship. Unless the situation is one of real danger or harm to someone parents must be sure to ask youth whether or not they want to have the parents involved; and if so, to what degree.
Sometimes youth would like parents to do something with or for them. If they do ask for help, it is critical that parents follow through and help out to the extent that is possible. Here are some things to consider:
- Listen intently to what they have to say
- Ask them if there is anything else
- Ask how you could be helpful
- Ask them if they would like help
- DO IT – follow through (if you can do something for them AND they have enlisted your help)
- Remember that if you indicate you would help or support them in something and you don’t, this could be very damaging to the relationship and increase the chance that they may not share again in the future
Checking in basically gets you back to Step #1. However, it is critical to check-in on kids after they share something with us. It is more important if they share something with us that requires some sort of action or follow-up. Checking-in demonstrates that you have not forgotten what they shared and that it remains important. If you were involved in some manner of action as a follow-up, checking in allows the youth to know what was done and whether something was followed through. Not knowing may cause stress, confusion or anxiety and contribute to a reluctance to engage or share important issues again. Here are some things to consider:
- Be sure you have completed your task if you had one
- Make time to check-in
- Ask about them
- Take the time to listen
- Go back to Step #1 and proceed through steps 2 – 5
Mary and Michelle were two of many parents I’ve met that were close to the end of their rope. Their relationships with their preteens and teens were stressed, conflicted and exceptionally challenged. They were not talking. They were definitely not feeling close or connected. Their relationships with their kids were struggling and their hearts were hurting. However, Mary and Michelle worked at applying the insights offered above and currently report experiencing, unbelievably BETTER communication and exceptionally BETTER relationships with all of their kids! Mary and Michelle have experienced a relationship transformation with their children. Once again, they are closer to their children; they are holding on to their hearts.