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The art of conversing with a teen

Parenting is a hands-on and an individual experience. No matter how many books you read on the subject, how many mothers (including your own) you consult, your child is unique and, therefore, your parenting must be specific to your child. It must be carefully pondered and sensitively executed. So, calling it an art shouldn’t be a stretch. Although this art doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all framework, it evolves as the child grows, by the day, week, month and year. One can never exact the art of parenting, especially not for a teen, but one can learn and grow with the child.

I have just stepped into my bittersweet 16th year of parenting. Bittersweet, because there were times, especially in the last three years, when I felt everything I did as a parent was wrong, and at others, it was the most amazing feeling to be a mother. As I spoke to other parents of teens, it got a little more reassuring to learn that the challenge of conversing with a teen is universal.

Let’s take a few examples from a classic everyday scenario. When your teen returns from school and you ask, “So, how was school today?” “OK” is all you get before she walks off to her room and shuts the door, leaving you staring at the door. And here, you were hoping to have a mother-daughter after-school chat. That’s perhaps the first change you notice after seven years of daily dose of non-stop chatter about classmates and teachers.

This nonchalance gradually permeates into all conversations. If you make the mistake of asking “Hey, what’s with all the attitude?” Be sure to hear “What attitude? I am just tired and not in a mood to talk. What’s your problem?” The next moment she is sitting by herself giggling into her phone. If that annoys you, take a few deep breaths, count till 10 and walk away from the scene.

By now it is clear, this art of conversing with a teen requires incredible patience and an open mind that is ready to observe, learn, adapt and improvise on the spur of the moment. Soulveda delves deeper into this ‘art’ to understand how to have a meaningful conversation with a teenager.

All ears, all the time

Says Sindhuja S, 42, working mother of 17-year-old Aniruth V, “The most important thing to do is to listen. No matter how hard it is, refrain from advising, and telling them.” That’s where we as parents often fall short. Be it due to lack of patience or just the way we are hardwired. As parents, we feel the need to exercise our right to ‘tell’ or “talk to” them; and, thanks to their hormones, the teens react with an, “I know, you don’t have to tell me” or “You don’t understand. You never understand.”

Sindhuja, who did a course in counselling while working as a medical transcriptionist, says, “When they are having an outburst, lend them your ears and pay attention to every word they say. Don’t give your opinions or offer advices right then. Give them time to recover. Then have a friendly conversation.” Listening attentively helps you to connect with your teen better.

Make space the final frontier

As a parent, we feel the need to be an intrinsic part of our child’s life to the extent that we run the risk of becoming a stalker. Often when I have tried to look over my 16-year-old daughter’s shoulder and peek into her phone to catch who she is chatting with, I have been stung by a stinker: “Why are you snooping? You do know it’s a breach of privacy, right?” Or if I ask too many questions about some “get-together plans”, she gets extremely irritated and questions, “Why do you need to know such granular details? Don’t you trust me?” While as a parent it is imperative to keep a tab on their online and offline worlds, I learnt the hard way that getting too intrusive in their lives only makes a teen more rebellious. So, it’s essential to give them space and have a subtle understanding that they need to keep you informed, wherever they go, whatever they do, in their real and virtual lives. Then, you have to just trust them. Once there’s mutual trust, they won’t misuse the space.

Enter the friendzone

Teenage is when children learn to understand and value friendships like never before. So much so that friends become more important than parents. What they wear, how they speak, what they read, their attitude—everything is dictated and ruled by friends. As a parent, it’s important for you to know your teenager’s friends. Become a friend and create a niche in their zone. That’s the best way to be included in their lives without being intrusive. You can have heart-to-heart conversations with your teen like a friend rather than as a parent. However, Anjana Vinod, 42, a Montessori teachers’ trainer and mother of 16-year-old Advaith Vinod, has a radical view on this: “I don’t believe in being a friend to a teenager unlike many people suggest. They have lots of friends. You definitely need to be friendly. But I strongly feel a parent needs to be a parent and not a friend.”

As a parent, if you happen to disapprove of any of their friends and voice it or try every trick in the book to keep them apart, you may potentially have a battle scenario on hand: “What’s your problem? Why can’t I go to her house?” or “Why can’t I meet him?” is the usual teenager’s retort. Do not hit back with a “Because I said so” kind of an unreasonable response. In an article on Talking with Teens-Tips for Better communication, Laurence Steinberg, PhD, Distinguished University Professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, says, “parents need to recognise that although your child doesn’t have the same level of knowledge, information, wisdom or experience as you do, he or she has essentially the same logical tools and can see through logical fallacies and lapses in what’s sensible.”

Have a friendly chat to explain some of the traits about the friend that bother you and that you feel will be harmful to your child. It’s like tiptoeing on shards of glass. Ensure you don’t criticise their friends or judge them based on what they wear.

Respect them, treat them as young adults

The operating words here are respect and adults. There’s a reason, teenagers are called young adults. Teenagers like it when you include them in your adult conversations and ask them for opinions. When they share their views, respect their opinion.

Be open and direct with your teenager

Teenage is when children start exploring and experimenting. As a parent, you not only need to be aware and clued into their actions, you must be around to satiate their curiosities as well. There’s no point in beating around the bush when it comes to discussing tough, uncomfortable or taboo subjects. Merlyn Mathias, 47, homemaker and mother of two boys, Kyle (20) and Shane (17), says “My boys hardly had anything to ask as I was always very frank and direct with them.” Such open, transparent and honest conversations make teenagers comfortable as it creates an environment of collaboration and healthy exchange of information.

Carpe Diem

Sometimes the best conversations take place in the most unusual of moments. As parents, you must seize those opportunities—in a car, while on holiday or during a casual walk back from the supermarket—to strike up a real conversation. That’s when you can enter unchartered territories in their lives and casually slip in a few words of wisdom, too.

Teenagers have a habit of suddenly bringing up a topic out of nowhere. “Ma, remember I told you about that boy in my class, who gave an unusual explanation for the Robert Frost poem?” First, you must understand this is a trick question on so many levels! Your teen may be checking if you were listening to her the last time or perhaps looking for your reaction to the word “boy”. If you pass such trick questions, you stand a chance of immortalising the most emotionally-fulfilling conversation which will follow from that moment on.

Apologise for messing up

Most of the time, parents don’t converse, they talk at, or talk past their children. They wield parent power to find fault with their teenagers, often criticise their attitude, compare them with other teenagers and sometimes even force them to do things against their wishes. That’s when teenagers often mess things up, even as adults. The best way to avoid such a situation is to apologise to them, give them a hug, forgive and be forgiven. Teenagers don’t forget very easily, but they can be kind enough to absolve you of your misconduct for the day.

In the end, it’s all about co-existing harmoniously. All relationships need some adjustment, compromise and a bit of sacrifice. A parent-teen relationship is no different. A little patience, attentiveness and respect can go a long way in creating an emotionally fulfilling and spiritually uplifting conversation between a teenager and the parent.

1 Comment
  • Vinod Ok
    August 30, 2019 at 9:47 pm

    Very well written Priya. As a father of a 17 year old, I can’t agree any less. And quite a bit of take aways for me from this. Thank you.

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