In adolescence, the child who used to share everything suddenly prefers to keep a distance. Then, how will you connect with your teen? Through intentional listening and by being a mindful parent...
By Arundhati Swamy
Talking to your teen, or rather getting your teen to engage in conversation with you is probably one of the toughest things to do. Your frantic attempts to have chats with your child could lead to a dead end because your conversation and communication can look like many things to your teen — a trial that tries hard to prove him guilty; or dripping-sweet-casual, when in reality, you are at being your inquisitive best. Or, it could seem like Sherlock Holmes trying to uncover clues that would solve a mystery (in this case, it’s your elusive teen). Whatever it may be, your teen will sense the threat and go into survival mode — to fight back, escape or, disconnect from you, the parent.
But wait, before you read further here’s something for you to do. Take a minute to pause and reflect upon how you have been doing so far. Are you doing or saying things that help you stay in touch with your teen? Or are they widening the communication gap between you and your teen? Without realising it, you may often continue to do the same things over and over again, even if they don’t yield the results you want so badly. Mostly because you don’t know how else or what else you could do differently. If you are feeling confused or distressed right now, just take a deep breath and tell yourself it's okay to feel this way. And then continue to read on to find renewed energy, to start all over again or just add some ideas to your own storehouse. Hopefully you will soon be having some amusing and compelling conversations with your lovely teenager.
For starters, let’s take a look at the questions you could be asking your teen. Sample this conversation: sharp, short and succinct.
'How was your day?'
'How are you doing?'
'How are things at school?'
To an active, lively and spirited teen, what would those questions sound like? Mere sounds — lifeless, empty, dull. The kind of questions you ask are often the culprit that brings cracks into your relationship with your teen. So, what will it take for your teen to sit up, become alert and have an interesting conversation with you? Interesting questions of course!
Beware of the all too common 'Why' questions, because children can lie to hide information and to avoid getting into trouble with you. And don’t we all want our teens to share ‘everything’ with us? That’s because we genuinely worry about them. But excessive worry is a clear warning signal for your teen’s survival system to kick in. The result — instant shut down! Listen well when your teen shares his candid thoughts, ideas and opinions. He is using you as a sounding board to test them out; to hear for himself how they sound; to confirm them and to see which ones are off key.
Here are four ways you can practice 'intentional listening' to reach out to your teen:
Even if you are not an overprotective parent, your teen will choose what she wants to share with you. Honestly, that’s more than enough for a great start. Grab the opportunity to listen with genuine interest. You cannot fake it because your teen is keenly reading your facial expressions and body language. Replace the frown with a smile, the accusing eyes with a trusting gaze, the threatening gestures with quiet ease, the tense muscles with gentle touch. Even if you don’t quite appreciate or understand some of her typical teenage lingo, mannerisms or ideas, make sure you keep your judgements to yourself.
Listen to your teen, not to please yourself, but to let her know that it’s safe to allow you to enter into her real world. Then you can be pretty sure that she will choose to share even more with you. Listen to the emotions behind her words — her fears, heartbreak, pain, hopes. When you listen with interest you let her know that you care about how she feels. It will help her cope with all those big emotions.
It’s hard to forget about your young child’s endless and delightful chatter. It’s what made you feel so connected with him. Conversations peppered with laughter, surprise and amusement had become the mainstay of your relationship. And now those conversations steadily become few and far-between, only to be replaced by frequent periods of dreaded silence. Because silence makes us feel afraid, a sense of loss — of control, of not knowing. Contrast this with being in control and in continuous conversation with the same child, albeit when he was younger. It’s a huge leap of faith that you will need to take. Take heart, for here’s the good news. Your teen will often drift into ‘silence’ mode whenever he needs a quiet space where he can think deeply and come to terms with how he is changing and growing. And while you suffer through that silence, you may turn inward and away from you teen. Take heed. As US-based Dr Kenneth Ginsberg, a paediatrician and an Adolescent Specialist says, “Don’t ever walk away when they are silent”. In other words, when you begin to understand the silence, it will stop hurting you.
Let’s take a look at this brief conversation:
Parent: “Son, why don’t you go for a walk or a run? It will make you feel better, take things off your mind. The fresh air will...”
Teen: “Oh, come on! I know how to sort this out. Haven’t you noticed? Why do you always have to interfere! I don’t need your advice all the time.”
Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it? You may recall similar rebuffs from your teen. And you think, “Here I am trying to help my child and all I get is a mouthful. Huh!” Perfect intention. Imperfect timing. This is where intentional listening can come to your rescue. Listening is not just about words, its also about emotions, actions, effort. When you monitor your child closely but subtly, you ‘listen’ to her entire being. And that gives you strong clues about how to choose the most appropriate time to step in and offer help or advice. Now can you see why the child mentioned in the above example exploded? The parent missed out on picking up an important clue — that the child was in fact trying to sort out things for herself.
So, do be careful about when you step in to support your teen. Here’s another tip. Your teen functions on a different body clock. Time yourself accordingly to improve your chances of having frequent meaningful connections with your teen. Further, there is no rule that says you must intervene immediately every time. Take a moment to check on your own state of mind. If you find that other things are crowding your mind, its best that you avoid diving into the situation, else you may mess things up unintentionally. Tell your teen that you need some time to clear your mind so that you can give her your full attention in a while.
Do you feel offended when your teen looks elsewhere while chatting with you? Perhaps you think he is being evasive or uninterested? Compare this with your earlier experiences when he was a child. Remember how he would literally hold your face and turn it towards himself so that he could look you in the eye while he related all his stories to you? How did all that change, you may wonder. Well, it will comfort you to know that it has nothing to do with you as a parent. This is what most teens will do. That’s just how they are.
In fact, your teen will open up in conversation more easily when she is looking elsewhere. The openness around helps broaden her perspective. Teens also talk more freely while doing an action, like playing a game. It helps them deal with their emotions while they talk. Conversations with your teen become smooth when you notice her cues that let you know whether she is ready or not for a chat with you. However, make sure you get her attention when you need to communicate important information.
Try hard as you may, there will be those inexplicable times and situations when your teen will anyway stonewall you. But don’t be discouraged, for the reasons are far beyond your control. Your teen’s brain is working very hard to become more efficient in preparation for all the forthcoming experiences of adolescence. These changes in her brain are responsible for many of her new teen behaviours, such as becoming frequently wrapped up in her own world. She is only trying hard to figure out many things about herself. As a result, she may talk less, share less and appear distant. So, while it’s a good idea to give your teen her personal space, you will still have to use creative and reassuring ways to stay in touch with your teen.
Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programmes at ParentCircle.
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