The subject in the Family Relations class I teach in my ward Sunday School was how to deal with teenagers. When I asked the class members—all parents of teenagers—to identify the most important issues or concerns they had in dealing with young people, the question at the top of the list was: “How can I get my son or daughter to open up and talk with me? I know they are facing problems that worry and trouble them, but when I ask them, ‘What is the matter?’ they respond with something like ‘Nothing,’ or ‘You wouldn’t understand.’”
These parents also identified a wide range of other issues and concerns, but the consensus was, “If we could just talk over all these things, we might be able to help our teenagers cope better with the problems in their world.”
Is there anything parents can do to improve communication with their teenagers?
Many experienced parents have learned that it’s better to share experiences than it is to push and pry.
Perhaps parents would like their teens to come to them and initiate a discussion on matters of concern, then ask for parental advice. Afterward, they would like to see the youth, filled with gratitude for the counsel, go and do exactly as the parents have suggested. It almost never happens that way.
I asked the parents in my class how many of them, as teenagers, had gone to their parents to talk over problems. Most had never done it. I asked why. The answers: “I was afraid it would embarrass me and my parents,” “I didn’t think they would understand,” and “They would have told me that I worried too much, or that everything was going to turn out just fine.”
One father reported that he had asked his teenage son, “Why don’t you ever come to me to talk over problems you’re facing?” The son had answered, “Did you ever talk things over with your dad?” “No,” the man replied. His son said: “Things aren’t so different now.”
If teens don’t come to discuss serious things with parents, what can parents do? A common strategy is to try to get the young people to “open up.” This usually results in questions that are often interpreted as prying. “Why are you so moody?” “What happened at school today?” “Why aren’t you going to the dance?” “Why did you get such a poor grade on that test?”
A different approach is to find an opportunity to share your own experiences with your son or daughter. The young people may not talk much, but they will usually listen with interest if you talk about how you felt when you failed an exam, or didn’t get a date, or disliked your math teacher, or didn’t get invited to a party. Just talk and share; let them know about you and learn what they will from your experiences.
Two mothers in my class tried this, with somewhat different results.
One knew her son was upset because he had not done as well as he wanted on a school project and in a musical program for which he had to play an instrument. She found occasion to talk about how miserable she had been when she got a bad grade, feeling down on herself; but she had finally accepted the fact that she could not always be perfect. She told him she knew that he probably got some of his perfectionism from her, and that she hoped he would be able to deal with mistakes better than she had. Her son listened with interest, and afterward said, “Thanks, Mom, that was a real help.”
The other mother said she had tried to talk with her son about some of her experiences as a teenager and had told him she had felt that sometimes her parents and teachers didn’t understand what she was going through. When she finished, her son asked, “Is that all?” She said yes, and he left without another word.
She interpreted his response as rejection and felt that what she had said to him had no impact at all. My own feeling is that he may have been impressed more than she knew; at least he listened all the way through and did not become defensive as often happened when she asked him questions or lectured.
Listening is the other side of sharing. Communication always implies one person talking and the other listening, trying to understand. Parents have often heard of trying to capture the “teaching moment”—that elusive time when the child is open to learning. It might better be called the “listening moment”—the time when a teenager really wants to talk, and wants to be listened to and understood. When that moment happens, parents need to keep quiet and listen.
It is not necessary to agree in order to understand. Parents do not have to agree with a child who hates school, or “never” has any friends, or can’t stand a younger brother. It is possible to listen and say, “I know how upsetting that can be.” One who feels understood is more likely to be open to other ways of viewing the world, or to consider different options in the face of problems.
As teenagers interact with their parents over the years, there develops a limit or boundary of trust—the degree to which the young person trusts parents to deal appropriately with issues raised for discussion. The trust limit is influenced by the teen’s answers to questions such as: Can I trust my parents to understand? Can I trust them not to get too emotional—angry or weepy—or give me the silent treatment? Can I trust them not to jump quickly to conclusions or actions that would embarrass me? Can I trust them to be available when I need them, not when they want to talk?
It is important to recognize the added dimension trust brings to love. Most parents and teenagers love each other. Love is given to the other person (unconditionally, we can hope) because of who that person is—parent or child. But a child’s trust in a parent grows over years of association as the child learns that the parent will not do things to manipulate or humiliate. Open communication is more likely to occur when love is magnified by trust.
Trust tends to elicit trust. When a young person deserves to be trusted, and parents let him or her know it, a bond grows between them.
One friend told me of an experience he had with his father more than forty years earlier, when he was a teenager. My friend played on the high school basketball team in a small, predominantly Latter-day Saint town in Wyoming. One night a few of the other basketball players got into some trouble. Later my friend’s father said to him, “It’s sad that this happened. I know if you had been there, you would never have allowed such a thing to occur.” This avowal of trust expanded the boy’s trust limit with his father as nothing else ever did. It was suddenly easier to talk to his father about matters that demanded trust.
Young people sometimes test the trust limit with parents. They might raise a real or hypothetical concern to see how their parents will react. A son might say, for example, “There’s this boy I know in another ward who’s thinking about turning down a mission call. What do you think his parents would do?” The response of the questioner’s parents is the key to whether the trust limit expands, stays the same, or shrinks a little.
It’s a good idea to take a problem-solving stance when a teen tests the trust limit. If a teenager says, “I don’t think I’ll take seminary next semester,” the parents can choose from a set of responses. They can dictate: “Oh, yes you will!” They can get emotional. They can argue. Or they can problem-solve: “I know this must be a tough decision to make. What is the problem with seminary that makes dropping out attractive?” The problem-solving approach tries to keep things on an even keel emotionally, looking at what the problem is, what options are available, and which option seems to make most sense. This way, a teenager can learn to trust parents to help solve a problem, rather than fearing that they will create a bigger one.
Ideally, parents will establish open lines of communication when children are little. Parents can start by sharing many things that children are interested in hearing: stories of how Mom and Dad met and fell in love and how they felt about the birth of each child; perspectives on the special strengths of each child; stories of missionary experiences and family struggles. This way, a pattern is established in which parents share real-life experiences with their children. With this pattern established, it will not be strange when parents share their experiences after children reach teenage years.
But at any point in a relationship—and despite its past history—parents can begin opening lines of communication. They can show and express trust where the trust has been earned. They can share experiences, without probing or prying. They can problem-solve with their young people. It may take time to repair communication lines that have broken down over the years, but if parents are willing to try, willing to share, willing to trust, there are great blessings waiting.