Adolescence is a time when our children discover things they have never noticed or understood before, have new thoughts they have never had before, and develop fears they have never experienced before. The only other time in their development when so much was changing so quickly for them was likely in the first year of life.
Remember how fascinated you were by every new thing your infant did? It’s now time to be amazed by your adolescent – their rapidly changing brain is full of new, more complex thoughts and ideas, while at the same time, your child remains idealistic enough to believe in the possibilities of these new thoughts and ideas.
But when our adolescents engage us in conversation -- and I promise they will if we are seen at all as willing to listen -- we have to quash our natural tendencies to be critical. For some reason, we American parents feel the need to correct our adolescents if their ideas are a little off, give them the “right” information if they are a little wrong, and reprimand them when they tell us about an unexpected or unsanctioned behavior. This is the quickest way to get your adolescent to shut down and avoid talking to you. The last thing an adolescent wants to be is wrong, corrected or reprimanded. So the formula is to spend 90% of your time listening to your adolescent and 10% talking. And the first thing you should always say is, “That’s interesting, tell me more.”
So even if your 15 year-old daughter comes home and says her best friend Susie is using heroin, you should merely say, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” True, it’s a rather extreme example, but the philosophy is still relevant. If you really want to know what your daughter thinks and feels about Susie and her drug use, she will tell you if you will listen. In a case like this, the parent often gets scared, panics and starts yelling things like, “You can never see that Susie again! I’m going to tie you to your bed until you’re 35, and I’m sending you to a private school where you’ll never, ever see any of your old friends!” See why the communication might stop and the adolescent never again tells her parents another thing about their social life?
What your 15 year-old daughter is probably trying to tell you is that she is shocked by her friend’s behavior, scared about what it means and wondering what she should or can do about it. When you shut her down with your panic, she’ll go looking for her answers elsewhere – usually a peer. So a better response to your adolescent might be “Wow, that sounds really scary -- heroin is a really dangerous drug. What do you think about Susie’s behavior?” When you have finished the conversation with your adolescent, you can then panic and start doing your homework about drug use at their school.
Again, the formula is to listen at least 90% of the time, find everything your adolescent says interesting, ask open-ended questions that have them expound on their thoughts, and resist the urge to correct them. If you know they’re wrong, say something like, “That’s not quite the way I understand it, but tell me more about what you’re thinking.”
Be honest with your adolescents -- they know when you are not and that builds mistrust. You don’t have to spill the sordid details of all your wild antics as an adolescent, but they do need to know that you’ve made mistakes, gotten into places you didn’t want to be and struggled with similar issues. You can tell them how your experiences made you feel -- just don’t tell them you know how they feel. No one can know exactly how they feel, because they are unique and different, just like everyone else.