It seems like as a kid all serious conversations happened around the dinner table, not necessarily while eating a meal. It was the common ground, the mutual meeting place for discussions to happen, arguments to be hashed out and resolutions made. In a way, sitting around the dinner table and NOT eating still brings back a little twinge in my stomach…which I can only link back to the phrase Come sit down, we need to talk. Is it ever good news when you’re summoned in this way as a teenager? Is it ever…come sit down, we need to talk….about…THIS BRAND NEW CAR I JUST BOUGHT YOU!?
While this may solely be my own anxious mind taking over, I find that a lot of my teenager students feel similarly about this phrase, and the metaphorical dinner table. They feel ambushed, like the light over the table is shining right on them. They strap on their interpretation ears that filters everything into a personal attack. So how can we, as adults…not just as parents… create a more welcoming space to talk with our kids about…well, stuff.
Have more talks, more often. Most often these serious conversations are centered around yuckiness. We need to talk about this failing grade, We need to talk about you missing curfew twice this week, We need to talk about what a disaster your room/locker/desk is. Take some time out to have open ended, neutral discussions about a topic;
Tell me about school today..
What is the new book you’re reading about?
I need a new game to play on my smart phone, will you help me find one?
All of these are nice a neutral topics that start with an open ended question (open ended meaning the answer requires more than a yes or no). You can think of these like kindling for a fire, they’re there to help you get a conversation started.
Pepper in the Good Stuff. Bring up things you catch them doing well;
I know you worked very hard on that history paper, I am proud of you.
I did notice that you cleaned up your room/locker/desk, thank you!
I can tell that this is a busy week with school, sports practice and (etc etc), you’ve done a great job prioritizing and taking care of business.
Ditch the Interrogation Style. Even for the must have serious conversations with your teenager, try sitting side by side instead of face to face. Often this is a more comfortable arrangement for males specifically, but I’ve found that it creates a sense of balance and comfort-ability, especially when there is an already established power differential like parent to child or teacher to student. For less intense conversation topics, try working on an activity together while chatting. (They’ll probably roll their eyes at this one….) Puzzles, while you’re both cooking or while they’re helping clean out the garage.
Ask open ended questions. How was school? Is a well-intentioned question that a lot of adults use, myself included. This question however, sets up your student to answer with one word and then…conversation over. Ask more questions that require details or at least a sentence in response.
Tell me about your history presentation today?
What skills did you work on during soccer practice this afternoon?
You’ve been wanting that new *insert newest coolest item here* for a while, convince me, what’s do great about it?
This is a tough area to work on, at least for me it is. What I view as an open ended question, is often shot down with a one word response.
Q: What did you do in school today?
Completely, truly, listen. This means positive “listening” language, reflective responses, minimal interruptions and focus on what your student is saying. Even while sitting side by side, or completing an activity together while having a conversation, your body language can relay to your student that you’re all ears.
When it’s not working, be honest. When getting the convo started or discussing a serious topic isn’t going so smoothly, be honest about how you’re feeling without being judgmental. Reflect on what you’re seeing and experiencing. This means sticking to I statements vs. you statements.
I’d like to spend a few minutes talking to you, hear about your day, or what’s up for the weekend, but I’m frustrated because I can’t seem to find a topic you’re interested in.
I’m happy that we can sit down and talk about school together, I know that you are stressed about college applications and I’d like to help.
I’m very angry and we’re not hearing each other when we’re both yelling, I’d like to take a break for a while to cool down and try to talk about this later.
A teenagers job is to start testing the limits of their independence. I think that as adults, going the extra mile to let them know that we’re here, interested in them, supporting and cheering them on when times get rough is extremely important. One of my favorite sayings: “A child who needs love the most, will ask for it in the most unloving ways”.