Connection first, communication next:
Try this. Ask your child questions like, “Did you eat alone again at lunch today?” or “You look high. Are you doing drugs?” Did they suddenly become defiant and respond defensively? Of course, they did.
OK, try asking them less outrageous questions. “How’s school today?” We would be lucky if we get grunts or squeals in response.
Listen, if we were all getting fully satisfying, straight forward and honest answers to all the questions we ask our children, we would not be researching and reading frantically about how to get them to talk.
Most often, the primary point of contention between children and parents occurs because of a breakdown of communication. But, before we express how we feel about their behavior and the rules they’re breaking, we have to connect with them first.
How to connect with your child:
Here are a few actionable tips that will help you to connect first and then impose later:
Always listen first: Begin every day with a genuine interest in listening to their voices. Be honest and open about your curiosity, but don’t listen with a problem solving agenda in mind. Reserve opinions and judgment for later.
See your child: See them for the individual that he or she is. Start from a place of compassion and understanding that they are fully capable of doing well in this world. See them not as a tough and ungrateful child but as a person who is few choices and decisions away from being the best they can be. Understand the factors influencing emotional development in teenagers.
Fail them periodically: Once in a while, leave them to the results of their own decisions. Don’t try to put a band-aid on their problems right away. Don’t try to fight for them. In reality, children want help themselves. Leave them to learn a little. Remember, risk averse children find it very difficult to move onto the next phases of their lives whether it is going to high school or to college.
Don’t assume: That your child is ungrateful and disregardful because he or she’s glued to their phone or video games a lot. Its not you, its the dopamine – the feel good hormone, and the 500 engineers behind that smart phone that are making social media addictive. Ask them earnestly what they like so much about their video games. Have they considered anything else in real life that they might be missing out on, that could be equally fun? Be prepared with specific examples in case they don’t know the options available.
Model your own behavior: Walk the path you talk. A parent who’s addicted to his own phone can’t be preaching about the harmful affects of social media. Understand why children rebel. Speak kind words and perform loving actions. Show them that you can be reliable and dependable. Treat yourself with respect. Value your time and give it to those who need it. Volunteer for a cause that’s greater than yours. Understand what it takes to be an ideal parent.
Let your style evolve: You parent an infant differently than a toddler. You parent a 10 year old differently than a 16 year old. When parents see that their children are orienting towards their peers, they feel a sense of losing control, and thats when we become clingy and nagging. Instead, respect their budding individuality and adopt to technology. After all, thanks to technology, we now have phone calls for arguments and status messages to express feelings.
Give some space: If your child seems to be having a hard day, think of how you can make it better. Sometimes, it means being flexible enough to walk away. Its OK if they’re not willing enough to allow you to snuggle with them on the couch right now. You don’t always have to do the right thing as a parent. A little later, go back and offer to listen, or play ball with them.
Trust and respect: Children respect adults who take them seriously. Children put their faith in us to raise them well and to the best of our ability. So, its your turn to return the favor by trusting them to do a good job with their life. The best we can do is to equip them with the tools they need. We trust them, we just don’t trust their age. Make yourself approachable by allowing them to rely on you without fear of judgment.
Empathize genuinely: Kids can feel dirty especially when they’re teenagers. They realize their impulsive behavior and their mood swings. Their life is governed by emotions. So, agree with them about their excessive obsessions first and then try to reason with them next. They’re dealing with the loss of their nonchalant childhood as real life of expectations and deadlines hits them hard. They don’t have the advantage of us adults who already know that no one is perfect.
Teens are hedonists: Teenagers are famous hedonists. They live a life of pleasure and little self control. They seem to be engaging in activities with little to no regard for the consequences. The part of the brain that’s responsible for the reward system, called striatum releases dopamine that makes them biased towards actions that give them instantaneous rewards. The upside to this behavior is they also have the ability to confront new challenges unlike adults who are risk averse.
But, again, its their brains: Teenagers are associated with impulsivity and a lack of responsibility, but its literally because their brains are still developing the prefontal cortex that regulates emotional responses.
Safety in groups: Ask any child why their play video games or use so much of social media, and the response is unanimous. “Its because, everyone is doing it. There’s nothing else to do.” Because children feel like peers are the only ones who understand them, and if they’re doing it, so should they.
Time and place: There’s a time and place to all the questions we have. Dinner table can be a nice place for spontaneous, informal conversations. If you still want to defy logic, try jumping in with your questions right after they step into the house after a long day. A defiant eye roll, or a grunt will greet you. Children are very good at spotting a fake and can figure out your underlying agenda. Connect with authenticity and your children will return true love.
Think different, Be different: If you want different results with your child, do different things with them. If everyone prefers to let them hang onto their devices, you take them for a walk. Young minds have irrational ideas of being able to conquer the world, save it and find their true place in it – all at the same time. Ask what excites them and equip them to channel their energies in that direction.
Set expectations: Believe it or not, children with boundaries and expectations feel loved. Lines drawn to show their limits actually reinforces their beliefs that someone in their life cares enough for their wellbeing. Understand what children wish their parents and caregivers knew.
Understand pitfalls: The alternative to not connecting before communicating is dangerous. Being dismissive and condescending about their troubles and anxieties may lead to children withdrawing themselves from parents. In the worst case, they will pushback for intruding into their business because you’re judgmental and reach out to their peers instead.
Laugh a little: Humanize yourself. Show that you take life seriously but not yourself. Learn to laugh a little at their mistakes along with them, instead of correcting them and fixing them every chance you get. Just like them, you’re trying to find out what your purpose is in life. Tell them poverty, grief, divorces exist because we’re all human.
Make a solid connection: When children are strongly rooted with familial ties, they still might be seeking approval from their peers, but they don’t gravitate towards them for advice and modeling behavior. Tell your children, words like “I love you” and “I’m there for you” as often as you can. Ask them, “Because I have expectations from you, its only natural you’ve expectations from us. How can we better parent you?”
Acknowledge infractions: In spite of our and their best efforts, there are times when your child’s behavior doesn’t meet the standards of what you expect them to live up to. Acknowledge these infractions and teach them they are stepping stones for them to move in the right direction. Ignoring them might risk looking complicit and responding might exacerbate the situation.
Promote positive self esteem: Always remember to remind your children of their own self worth and their individual abilities. Tell them how they’ve changed your world for the better and how much they matter to you. A child who has great self worth feels capable of doing whatever they set their mind to. There’s great progress in change and growth.
Talk, talk, talk: Don’t assume that your child is not interested in what you’ve to say. Just like how they want to be heard, they also want to hear from their loved ones. Whether you like it or not, talking about safe sex practices and children’s sexuality is a good idea. Imagine the alternative. Your children get their sex ed from the internet or peers who also learn through hearsay.
About the adult content that’s available so readily on the internet now, I tell my 13 year old, that its upto him what he chooses to believe in. “Real life is boring and real people look normal.” Remember, its our duty as caregivers to plant the seeds of love, connection and hope. In the end, when they will allow these seeds to sprout is upto them.
When parents make it easy for children to behave well, their self-esteem grows. They learn to see themselves in a positive light and feel successful in being able to please us.
~ Dr. Anthony P. Witham.
How to get your teenager to talk
* * *