Communicating with your teen shouldn’t be scary. I know it’s different than when they were little, but it isn’t as challenging as it might seem. I’ve been working on college campuses for the past fifteen years, and one of the most common questions I get asked is “how can I talk to my child about this stuff?” I always thought it was interesting that here I was, a person without kids (now I have two little ones) and they were asking me for advice, when they’d been parents for a long time already.
There’s a time and a place for everything. That time and place is called college. -JT Sohr
What I came to realize was that they really cared about the issues facing their semi-adult children and wanted to help, but they just didn’t have the tools. It was a whole new world – as they say, small kids, small problems – bigger kids, bigger problems. So, once I knew these parents really wanted to find ways to help their kids and be able to talk with them, I did my best to guide them.
One of the main things I’ve noticed as kids gets older is that parents have to find the right balance between giving kids their freedom to gain independence, and knowing when – and how – to get involved. When your kids were little, you were their primary caregiver. You were responsible for making sure everything went well in their lives and you saw to it and that things got done. You saw them every day, all the time, and were pretty much always in the know about what was going right or wrong in their world. They came to you with their issues and problems. Most kids wear their emotions on their sleeves and are willing to tell you – with unabashed truth – what’s bothering them.
I’m guessing you could usually solve these problems easily with a hug, a cookie and some encouraging words. And they thought you were awesome. As a mom now of a 6 and 4 year old, this is pretty much my world. And I love it. I enjoy how freely my kids talk to me, that I can surmise their problems pretty readily, and how easily they tell me when something is bothering them. I try my best to appreciate it because I know what’s coming.
Now it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As your kids get older, you can start to concentrate on having a more meaningful relationship. You can have deeper conversations, richer moments together. You won’t have to simply focus on the mundane tasks of daily life that you had to when they were younger and needed you for every little thing. Most parents I work with are excited to hear about their students’ lives and how things are changing for them and want to share their own experiences as well. But how do you make this shift positively and effectively?
Some basic tips for you should be doing in helping create a more mature, open, and meaningful relationship with your not so little kid include the following:
1) Set the stage for conversations: pick a good time and place to talk to them. Don’t do it on the fly, in the car, on your way to somewhere important, or when they are distracted by something (or someone) else. Plan for it. Let them know you’d like to carve out some time to chat so you’re both in the moment and can focus on the conversation.
2) Be a good listener: this sounds obvious, but the biggest complaint I hear about from students about their parents is “they don’t listen to me.” Be OK with silence. Let them talk. I know you have life experience you want to share with them, but let them ask you to share when they want that input.
3) Help your child change from “demand” thinking to “choice” thinking: If they are struggling with a problem, help them move away from looking at things as something they have to do, and help them see their choices in a situation. What do they have control over…?
4) Be a reality check: Don’t try to be their best friend by showing approval at every choice they make. Help them see how their choices are good ones, or maybe not so good, by helping guide them towards what is realistic for them. Don’t allow them to set goals that ultimately you know they cannot achieve. If something isn’t working for them, help them set new goals.
5) But encourage them: you can keep them realistic while still being their biggest cheerleader. Don’t always point out their failures. Show them you see what they are doing well, too.
6) Show Empathy: let them know you understand what they are telling you. Use reflecting listening tools by saying things like, “wow, sounds like this is really frustrating situation for you,” or “seems like your friend Sally really doesn’t understand you at all these days. That must hurt.” If you are unclear, ask for clarification. Try, “so, it sounds like when Sally told all your friends that secret you told her you were really angry at her and then she got angry back at you. Is that right?” Then ask them to tell you more…
Some things to avoid include:
1) Too much talking/interrupting: See #2 above!! Listen, listen, listen.
2) Asking closed questions: if you ask questions that allow your kid to answer with one word, like “yes” or “no”, you won’t get very far into the conversation. Ask open ended questions that force your kid to talk. Instead of asking, “did you have a good day at school today?” ask “tell me about your day today.” I know it seems simple, but it really opens (or closes) the door to effective communication, and far richer conversations.
3) Denying/minimizing their issue: As parents, we don’t want to see our children suffer, so we have a tendency to say things “it’s not that bad,” or “don’t worry, it’s OK.” While our intentions are good, we are basically telling our kids that we don’t understand their problems and they will stop coming to us. Try to appreciate that while you might think the problem is small, it is huge to them in their current world view and treat it as such.
4) Advice giving: too much, too strong, too often. I know you want to! I do too… But it doesn’t help. Unless they’ve asked for your advice, mostly they want to be heard and understood. Try asking something like “do you just need to vent right now, or would you like some advice?”
5) Judgment: if your child is talking to you about an issue or problem, try your best not to judge them or their friends. If you do, there’s a good chance they won’t talk to you again about another problem.
So, these tips should help you in every day situations with normal adolescents, teenagers and college kids. The bottom line is you need to listen to them and show them you understand what they are telling you, and you hear what they are saying. You get it. Then ask, how can I help? But how do you know when their behavior is more concerning and you really need to talk with a professional?
Some major red flags include:
- Major changes in behavior – sleep and eating patterns, mood changes, being quick to anger, etc.
- Sudden disinterest in things they used to love
- Sounding hopeless – saying things like “it doesn’t matter anyhow…”
- Giving away prized possessions
- Increase in substance abuse and/or risky behavior.
If you see any of these, I’d strongly encourage that you seek help from a professional to help. It is very important that you are able to tell when your teen needs outside help and get that help immediately. In situations where the teen’s problems have outgrown your expertise, enrollment in a drug rehab center might be your only option. While this is a difficult decision to make, an inpatient program provides help for teens struggling with addiction, as well as the depression, grief, trauma, and anxiety that often goes along with it. In the end, it is much better to ask for help now than to have regrets about your inaction in the future. Another great place to start if you don’t have another option is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.
Guest post from Rebekah Schulze, the founder of Pathway College Consulting, has worked in higher education for over 14 years and is an expert on college life. Pathway’s mission is to help students and their families find the right “fit” for college, allowing students to maximize their success, while enjoying the application process by using a stress-free and fun approach.
She knows what it takes to succeed in college. She has extensive experience in Academic Advising, Academic Support Services, Disability Services, Residence Life, Judicial Affairs, and Orientation. She has worked at Washington University in St. Louis, Boston University, Dean College, Clark University, WPI, and Becker College. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Colby College, a Master’s Degree from New York University, and her Doctorate in Education from Boston University where her research focused on suicide prevention for college students. She is also on the Faculty at WPI and Becker College.
Rebekah lives in North Grafton, MA with her husband and their two children.