Having difficult conversations with your child can be daunting, especially if you’re having them in the midst of a heated argument. There are two mantras that I hold near and dear when working with parents on communicating with their young person at home. The first is from Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage, where he points out “common sense is not common action.” I love repeating this to a room full of adults because it always takes a moment to sink in. The simple reality is obvious: we know yelling isn’t an effective way to communicate, but we do it anyway. We know clicking the pause button on Netflix because it’s already late is the best thing to do, but we let the next episode keep playing anyway. Acknowledging common sense is not common action does not mean we should feel defeated and give in to our worst habits, it just means there’s a reason why we fall into the same pattern over and over again, and being aware of it is the first step to changing it.
The second mantra comes from Family Psychologist, Josh McDowell, who poignantly reminds us, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” There is so much we can unpack from this simple statement, especially because as children grow into adolescents, they are developmentally at a stage where they want to be a part of setting expectations rather than having rules be enforced on them. I believe at its center, this statement serves to warn us that rules and expectations don’t have to be unchanging. With an eye to relationships being most important, setting boundaries can be a conversation with a back and forth on what is reasonable and what is non-negotiable. By involving our young people in that discussion, the hope is that there is more buy-in and less surprises when consequences have to occur.
Nonetheless, some hard conversations have to be had, whether it’s around how much screen time is too much versus what time curfew is when your older child is out with friends. For these conversations, below are some simple tips. I give them not because I think you don’t already inherently know them, but because sometimes — common sense is not common action.
- Find the right time – I am a huge believer in setting yourself up for success. If a difficult conversation needs to be had, it should take place in a safe space, at a time where both parties are calm and prepared. Adolescents may find it “cringey” that you have asked for a time to specifically discuss something, but they equally dislike unplanned conversations that take them away from their games, studies, or whatever they happen to be doing at the moment that is so important. Find the right time and place to set yourself up for a productive conversation.
- Avoid superlatives – We all use these words: you always do this. You never listen. Every time I come home…it’s polarizing and puts your child in defensive mode. Why try changing if mom and dad doesn’t notice it anyway? On the topic of words to avoid, I adopt a practice of not asking why. Asking a “why” question implies that there should be a reason and once again puts the responder in a defensive position. Even if I have been told that a student has just physically hit someone on the pitch, my first question is not “Why did you do that?” Instead, I go with a more neutral approach: “Tell me what happened.” There are whole books on how to communicate with teenagers, I think avoiding superlatives is a good starting point to adjust conversations if they haven’t been going well.
- Listen – When we run our 10-week parenting teenagers course, there is always a week where parents are asked to practice listening. Just listening. Parents take turns role playing a conversation with a child, and each time without fail, parents came back to share how hard that exercise was. They couldn’t help but interject with questions when the person in front of them was sharing something intimate. They couldn’t help but give advice and try to take matters into their own hands. As children get older they may not be seeking a way for the adults in their lives to help them problem-solve anymore. They may just want you to listen. How you listen to your child really sets up the foundation for whether they continue to confide in you.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but certainly a great place to start.