Parents, we know being a teenager is hard. Our kids are dealing with all the stuff we went through but now there’s the added pressure of their entire life being displayed on social media, TikTok challenges (thank goodness that wasn’t around when I was younger!), and oh yeah, a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. It’s a lot.
But can I get an Amen that it’s sometimes hard to be the parent of a teenager, too?
We all have the best intentions of helping and supporting our teens as they navigate these challenging (and unprecedented!) years. We want to empower them to make good choices. To prepare them for independence. To show them how to pursue positive relationships. But sometimes we’re just stumped. We know one crucial success factor is talking with our child about all of that, but what do we do if they won’t talk to us? What if we feel like we’re walking on eggshells in every conversation out of worry that they will get defensive or dramatic?
Well, it’s ironic we think they are “overreacting,” engaging in “drama,” or “freaking out”—because that is exactly what our kids think we are doing! And one of the clearest trends in our research for For Parents Only: Getting Inside the Head of Your Kid is that being able to talk well is usually dependent on our kids not thinking that we are going to freak out.
So what is it that kids see that way? And what can we do to instead build an environment where they want to talk to us, and accept guidance from us, for years to come?
“Freaking out” means “the display of any emotion”
Yeah. This is slightly crazy. But it has been really clear in the focus groups, interviews and nationally representative surveys with more than 3,000 teens and tweens over the years.
When a teenager is sharing a story (positive or negative), or describing something that happened, or bemoaning a challenge, they are subconsciously on high alert for what our reaction will be. And almost any sort of overt emotional reaction from parents can trigger their sense that we are “freaking out.” They can handle a polite, ultra-calm listening face. And if they are emotionally upset about something, they can handle (and actually want) empathy for their feelings (“I’m so sorry, honey”). But anything else risks being seen as an overreaction.
Now, to be clear: this doesn’t mean anything else will be seen as an overreaction, but that it could be. And if you’re seeing your teenager pull away instead of talking to you, odds are that you are triggering that “they are overreacting” thing far more than you realize.
Again, remember this sensitivity arises in part because they are the ones dealing with all sorts of crazy emotions that they don’t entirely know how to regulate. But in a way it makes sense: if they can’t yet handle their own emotions, how are they going to feel able to handle ours, too?
So how it is possible to settle our own emotions when our teen is talking to us, so we can be seen as the “calm listeners” they need?
Realize that your teen wants to share with you
Remember this good news. In our national survey for For Parents Only, 75% of teens indicated, “If I knew my parents wouldn’t freak out, I would really like to share certain things with them.” So statistically, it is highly likely that your teen is thinking the same. Anxiety has become a big mental health issue due to the pandemic and now, more than ever, our teenagers need the ability to share their hearts with us.
Using subtle cues to signal “Tell me more” will set the tone for them to open up. Listen calmly, with little visible emotion—a smile instead of a Starbucks-jacked, “Wow, that’s exciting!”, an inquisitive eyebrow raised or a calm murmur to indicate, “Then what happened?” Or perhaps you could say, “That’s interesting,” instead of, “Oh my gosh! Then what happened?” If you feel yourself having any “bigger” reaction (whether negative or positive), try (if at all possible) to wait until you can share it very calmly.
If your teen has—fairly or unfairly—pegged you as a “non-calm” listener, you may need to commit for a long time to this new way of listening to the little things they do share (“my friend Jack is thinking of joining the Army after high school”), in order to demonstrate that they can (in their mind) trust you with the bigger things (“so am I”).
Keep the big-picture goal in mind
Sure, there will be times when you have strong reactions, and yes, you’re the parent so it may be entirely appropriate to show significant displeasure as part of discipline. But constantly keep in mind: what is my big-picture goal here? If you ultimately want your daughter or son to feel able to share their life with you, then there will be at least some cases where you decide to pull back on the emotion (not the action or the discipline), in order to not shut down lines of communication with your child.
I love Proverbs 15:1 that says, “A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.” During this season of life, a gentle reaction to your teen’s words will generally yield greater results than one filled with big emotions.
Commit to showing that you are a “safe” listener
The most amazing truth we learned from teens throughout our research is quite simple. If you make a concerted effort to listen ultra-calmly— no matter how much you might be “freaking out” on the inside— you’ll hear so much more from your teen. You’ll be showing yourself to be a “safe” listener: someone who remains cool and collected when personal details are shared.
That sense becomes important even in much younger years, but as you can imagine, the teen years are when it begins to matter most. Ultimately, you can’t make your kids share, but a calm presence will help them feel that you can be trusted.
And maybe, if you’re lucky, they might even invite you into their next TikTok video . . . but only if you don’t freak out about it.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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