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January 25, 2021 How to Talk to Teenagers


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How to Talk to Teenagers by Jacey Wanner

Honesty time: When people ask me questions or make suggestions on how to parent teenagers, I immediately tense up because I feel that teenagers present unique challenges compared with younger children.

 Yes, younger kids have distinct interests and personalities, but teenagers’ brains are firing with all sorts of signals to start the transition into being adults. Here’s the problem: They are not adults yet and still do need their parents’ help in navigating certain issues. At the same time, they have areas of their life in which they are ready to be completely independent.

When I looked into some books that are helpful for parents of teenagers, one was “Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen” by David Walsh. Walsh and his daughter, Erin, write and speak about all things parent related and have resources through their business, Spark & Stitch Institute.

David Walsh’s book links brain science to the behaviors parents are seeing with their teens. The book is a wonderful glimpse into a teenager’s mind and what parents can do to help their teen in ways that don’t lead to yelling matches, slamming doors, and sneaking out.

One of the chapters in the book targets communicating with teenagers. The book explains how teenagers’ brains interpret emotions differently than adults’ brains which can cause conflicts between parents and their teens.

The following was my favorite quote from this section of the book: “Adults use the rational part of the brain to read emotions, but adolescents basically do it with a gut reaction. And they are frequently wrong.” Yes, you read that correctly: Teenagers’ brains code information incorrectly.

Have you ever gotten into a fight with your teenager because the teen thought you were yelling, and you were making a calm request? The part of the teen’s brain that processed the request was the part of the brain that controls fear and anger, so the teenager perceived your request as being angry with the teen and the youth reacted as such.

What can parents do to help their teen communicate effectively? First, David Walsh explains that parents can talk to their children about their brain and their brain’s tendency to overreact and process emotions incorrectly during an initial reaction.

Here’s an example: Your child says, “I can’t believe my teacher yelled at our class for the whole class period today!”  Now, the teacher actually may have yelled at the class for the whole class period. However, parents, knowing that teens often interpret emotional information incorrectly with their gut instinct could ask their child some questions such as: “What was the teacher trying to talk to your class about? How could the problem the teacher was upset about be solved? Did the teacher say he was angry at the class before beginning to yell?”

Asking questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer opens up the opportunity to talk to your teenager more about the situation. Treat this opportunity that your teenager is bringing up as a challenge for the teen and model positive communication skills. Similarly, model good listening to your teenager by not interrupting or lecturing the teen but by letting the teen share what is happening and asking the teen questions so the teen can provide information further.

Also, let you teen know your emotion when you are talking to the teen, so the teen doesn’t have to guess. For example: “I am frustrated when you forget to put your clothes in the clothes basket after I have asked many times. I’m not angry. I would just like if you could listen when I ask you to do something.”

By using some of the tools for communicating with teenagers that David Walsh describes in his book, we can turn a source of tension and hostility into an opportunity for growth as a communicator and friend, and we can support our teenagers through a challenging time in their lives.



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