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Talking to your teenager and (maybe) encouraging them to talk to you


Allow me to direct you to an interesting and helpful article out of the New York Times about talking to your teenager. The closing sentence to the piece: “As I often do, I asked them, ‘When I meet with your parents tonight, is there anything that you want me to pass along?’ A hand shot up, followed by its owner, an earnest girl who stood to say, ‘Please tell them that when I complain about my school day, the only thing I want them to say back is, “Oh my God, that stinks.”’ This “earnest girl” asks us to just reflect.

Reflection is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust. Reflection sends two powerful messages: 1) it helps others (in this case your kid, but power/benefits of reflection apply to all relationships) identify their feelings; and 2) (that I believe, is more powerful than #1) “You must be paying attention to me because you know how I feel.”

Examples of reflection: “You don’t like waking up to get ready for school when it’s still dark.” This in response to your teenager, yelling from underneath the covers, “Why do I have to go to school every day?” Another example: Your kid shares in a quivering voice: “Lauren (kid’s good friend) is a jerk.” A reflection: “Lauren did something today that you didn’t like.”

You don’t need to worrying about inaccurately labeling/identifying the feeling in your reflection. If you mislabel the feeling (example: “You seem angry” and the kid actually feels sad. The child will take on the misidentified feeling. She will not say to herself: “Angry. Yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll feel angry.”), no harm done. In fact, the mislabeling may prompt a correction (“No, I’m not angry. I feel very sad. Today was Saede’s last day at our school and I will miss her.”), which provides us with evidence that we’ve helped our kids identify their feelings.

If you can’t tell how your kid feels, based on tone, body language and other cues, just repeat what she says. Example: Your child walks in and says in a matter of fact fashion: “Adrian skipped school today.” You got nothin’ but the words, so repeat the words: “Adrian skipped school today.”

When your child uses the word “hate,” we replace it, rather than repeat it. Example: “I hate Mr. Young.” A reflection (replacing “hate”): “I know you don’t like Mr. Young. And he did something mean, again, today in gym class.”

Reflection is never delivered as a question (However, author’s suggestion in the New York Times article, “a warm ‘How come?’ can keep the conversation going” is a good one.  Sooo…almost never.). You know how you respond to: “What are you so angry about?” You ask a question, the other feels his/her back is against the wall; virtually assuring no response (other than, maybe, being mean to you). Instead: “You seem pretty upset.” This provides the opening to respond. You might get an immediate response (though not likely) or maybe later (again, only maybe). A question requires an answer. A reflection does not. It simply communicates the two messages I mentioned above.

Three or four months into one school year when I taught kindergarten, the mother of one of my students approached me, asking, “What do you do all day in class?” I smiled (having a feeling why she asked) and replied with a question of my own: “Why do you ask?” She responded: “Well, everyday I ask my daughter what she did in school all day, her answer is always, ‘Nothin.’”

I explained to her that school is the first time/place/occasion that is her daughter’s own; having nothing to do with her parents. And recognizing that interest in savoring and getting used to it helps us understand this response and not take it personally.

One way of learning some things about your children’s day is to create a family tradition: Every night at dinner (or whenever you all have a meal together), everybody (that includes you) takes a turn to brag to everybody at the table about all of her/his good work during the day (stuff you’re supposed to do counts as good work and having a good time counts as good work) preceding the meal. It also helps everybody improve in their ability to notice their own good work. And, what we notice we can remember. What we remember we can repeat!


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