How You May Be Shutting Down Communication With Your Teen.Written by Lori Pollard
I was sitting down to dinner with my 14 year old daughter, when she busted out with her wish for our summer plans. It went something like this, “I really want to go to the Bahamas this summer. Everyone’s been there but me.” I came within a mille-second of making the fatal teen-parent error of calmly explaining to her that while I understood her wish for a vacation, that a trip to the Bahamas wouldn’t be possible this year due to the economy.
Moreover, I should probably teach her about being grateful for what we do have, because of mutilation and starvation atrocities in other parts of the world. Within this same mille-second I commended myself for not diverting to my first thought which was to sarcastically reply, “Yeah right Kourtney, you’ll be lucky to get a bathing suit from Target this year, let alone wear the damn thing to the Bahamas. Furthermore I doubt everyone has been there.” Part of me was in disbelief that she would even think this was a possibility given the economy, and the other part of me was feeling guilty because maybe I was scarring her by not being able to give her the same experience that everyone in her world has experienced except for her.
I’m currently a therapist at a high school, so I am acutely aware of how the teen mind processes dialogue with his/her parents. I’ve spent hours reassuring parents that their teen’s brain development is normal for his/her age no matter how irrational it sounds to the adult mind. Luckily, all of the moons were in alignment that day, and I wasn’t PMS’ing, because out of nowhere, I was able to switch over to my professional role, and give her what I knew she wanted in that moment; understanding. I put myself in her shoes as well as my own, and replied, “Yeah, that sounds fabulous. I wish we could go there too Kourt.” I was still basking in pulling that empathic moment out of God knows where when I heard, “Yeah, I’ll probably never get to go to the Bahamas.” One second I’m hailing myself as “enlightened mom of the year”, and the next I’m hit in the gut with this response. What the hell does this kid expect of me? Again, the mille-second thing- and I hear a barely recognizable adult voice say “She expects you to understand what she’s trying to say, and not make it about you Lori.” Again, a blow to the gut, and this time by me. Nobody told me when I had a kid I would have to become a totally different person- namely Gandhi.
I hear these seemingly, mundane little stories on a daily basis in my job, and this is what my teenage teachers in all of their wisdom have taught me: We all just want to be heard, and more importantly understood. She was just expressing a fleeting wish, and then a momentary feeling of discouragement. How does this delineate her, a teenage girl, from me, a 41 year old woman? Dear God, I experience those same feelings all the time. Doesn’t everyone? I think as parents our intention is to make everything a learning experience, and let me tell you, those mutant minds see right through it, and it pisses them off and shuts down any communication in that moment. If you can’t simply relate to them when they’re expressing a simple human desire, than how do you expect them to talk to you when he/she is contemplating smoking weed, or having sex? I think a lot of parents have a belief, most likely based in fear and love, that somehow we’ll be able to protect our child, and alter his/her behavior by giving them incessant warnings and lessons when they’re just trying to talk to us. It’s so interesting to me that adults accuse kids of not wanting to talk to them, and yet when those rare moments do come, we completely lose sight of really listening to them, and relating to them right where they are in that moment. No wonder they would rather talk to their friends. I believe that there is a time and place for lessons and warnings, but ask yourself, “Is it crucial in this moment for me to teach them something, or can I just listen for now?” I would argue that in most of these situations you will shut down future communication when you stay stuck in “parent mode” instead of switching to “human” mode with your child. Showing him/her your humanity teaches compassion, understanding and unconditional love, which has a much stronger potential for facilitating future serious communication than remaining fixed in a stance that teens already have difficulty relating to. Never forget, in their minds you are pretty much an idiot right now, so when you get in their world, you have the opportunity to shift their view of you, and they actually see you as someone who gets it. This is money in the bank later when you do need to lay down the law. After all, how many times does your child have to mimic you, while finishing your sentence of admonition or teaching to them before you get that they already know what you are going to say, and by the way, you just killed the moment mom? Typically, this is when the parent gets angry and tells him/her they’re being disrespectful, and ”I was just trying to help!” Usually the kid responds by letting the parent know, “If I’d have known it was going to turn into this, I would’ve never said anything at all!” Proceeded by some feet stomping and a door slam, and then everyone feels misunderstood.
This tiny interaction gave me the opportunity to share with my daughter that I too would love to go to the Bahamas with her, and see her happy, and that I know what it’s like to feel afraid that my dreams may not come true. It gave me the opportunity to say to her that I had every confidence in the world that if she really wanted to go to the Bahamas that she would make that happen, because I can see that she is resilient, strong and determined. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that a part of me had to muster up some serious bull#$%*, because my daughter wasn’t what you would exactly call industrious at that time. However, here is something else I’ve learned from parents and teens: Sometimes you have to tell them that you believe the best in them even though you aren’t necessarily seeing that in your child at the time, because here’s a secret they may never let you in on, “I need you to reassure and believe in me, because I don’t understand why I’m acting like an idiot either.”