How to Have Hard Conversations with Your Teen
Posted by Phil
I remember my son looking up from a disappointing test grade, annoyed with my advice and yelling at me, “You don’t understand; math has changed!” I literally laughed out loud.
Then I looked at his study sheets. I didn’t recognize a thing. It was true. Math had changed.
This is not our middle school or high school anymore, folks, and it threatens our ability to relate. But, we can relate to the charged emotions our teens are facing. And we can better enter into the necessary, hard conversations at times by attending to those emotions rather than avoiding them.
I learned this the hard way. I can be a knucklehead as a dad. I’m great at picking up on things with other people, but it took me a little while to begin seeing what I was missing in my own family.
It’s easy to label our teens as acting out, or having attention-seeking behavior, or being manipulative, or focusing on themselves instead of God, and those may be valid issues at times. Still, when it comes time to address these issues and have hard conversations with your child, let’s replace the idea of our kids needing attention with the idea that they need a connection. And we can best connect with them by attending to the emotion before attending to the solution.
In other words, we need to slow down before we try to fix the problem.
OK, but where’s the spiritual part? In fact, a spiritual focus needs to be at the core, and it is, because the spiritual can’t really be separated from the emotional and still be healthy. When we acknowledge our son or daughter’s anger, or sadness, or excitement, or fear, we are with them right in the middle of the Truth. Even if they don’t realize it yet.
So how do we get them to go there with us or let us in to that part of themselves? Basically, we have to cultivate honesty by rewarding honesty. Remember, truth doesn’t taste good unless it’s seasoned with grace. When there has been a breach in the family rules, grace says, “You’ll be in less trouble if you tell me the truth.” Then we have to back that up.
Reward their honesty. If we lower the boom anyway, we just taught them how to not trust us at all.
Cultivate safety in conversation by being safe at other times. So when you hear something inappropriate that your teen’s friend is doing, question out loud the behavior or decision, discuss the possible outcomes, but do so without criticizing the friend. If we model judgment all the time, we’re going to eventually create a lack of safety with our own kids.
Remember to parent each kid as an individual. In our house when a consequence has to be levied, each child responds differently. One kid cries at the mention of punishment, one kid argues a position against the injustice of it all, one kid chimes “OK” and then skips down the hall, and one kid gets eyes like The Incredible Hulk. Each one is different, responds differently, needs different things. The Hulk calms down with a valid reason. The Actress wants to feel that no one is mad. The Lawyer needs time and music to relax her opinion. The Skipper apparently has her own magical fairy dust, so we just leave her alone with it.
I have found it to be incredibly important to find each kid’s “open window” for conversation. Find the time and place that makes them comfortable. It might be a consistent moment or time of day (bed time, after dinner). It might be an activity (going for a walk, playing catch). It might involve a certain structure (sitting at the table, written in an email first). Or, maybe it’s a location (coffee shop, park, the car). Whatever it is, we need to lean into those natural opportunities for hard conversations.
There are lots of roles we fill when communicating with our teens: Coach, Advocate, Crime Stopper, or Judge. It helps if I pay attention to what role I’m speaking out of in a specific conversation. Am I using the voice I intend? Am I being a Judge when it’s time to be a Coach? Am I being an Advocate when it’s time to be a Crime Stopper?
As parents, we have to concede that there are decisions and influences that we have already put into practice with our kids that didn’t work or missed the mark. It’s already in play. It’s too late for a retraction. It’s not too late for a course correction. When I have blown it, I have to make things right, repair the relationship, and move forward. And we need to give ourselves grace. We need to give our kids grace. We need to extend a love and a trust and an absence of shame to them that we haven’t even necessarily had for ourselves at times.
Death is hard
Death as a topic is unsettling. I could give you pointers on talking only about death, but under the surface of that is loss. And our kids are going to be facing loss for the rest of their lives. The formula is simple: “When there is loss – grieve.” Look at your kids and tell them to cry, shout, make a fist, hit a pillow with a tennis racket, mention who and what has been lost, and don’t avoid it.
Look at them and tell them, “Don’t let anyone rush your grieving process, including yourself.” Grieving a loss won’t hinder their life – it will free it up for the future. The space in my counseling office is regularly filled by people dealing with issues of unresolved grief that linger into adulthood. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Sex frequently makes the ‘tough conversations’ list
And given limited space here I’m going to refer rather than be too brief. There are lots of great resources to help you talk through issues of sex. Kevin Leman and Kathy Flores Bell’s book, A Chicken’s Guide To Talking Turkey With Your Kids About Sex (Zondervan 2009) is right in line with building trust, giving support, and cultivating safety. As far as your emotions, just pray for the ability to be the least anxious person in the room, no matter what.
Self-discipline hinges on understanding responsibility
And responsibility begets responsibility. Just help them bridge the gap between your desire for them to be responsible and how it fits into the greater good, the bigger picture, the endgame. Ask them, “Whose responsibility is that?” Ask to help them problem-solve a better way, or different way, to get something done. Allow them to discover how they are making a contribution, not just following a demand.
Remember, the emotional and spiritual can’t be separated. God created that, not me, not you, not our kids, not culture. God did it. So work with them – use them both to connect to your kids. Move toward emotions for connection. Move toward Scripture for solutions. Attend to both – emotion and solution – when you attend to hard conversations with your teens.
No, they may not rise and call you blessed. They may not understand why you are pouring into their lives in this way. You may feel frustrated and toxic at times. You’re human, you’re normal, I get it. So ask for help. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone does parenting without Jesus.
When I’m in the pit, Psalm 40 reminds me that He’s in the pit with me. When I’m walking the right road, Zephaniah 3:17 reminds me that He’s celebrating me. And when I’m at the top of my game and a bit arrogant, 2 Sam. 22:28 reminds me that He will humble me to keep me healthy and in step with Him.
He attends to me. He loves me well. Even when I don’t realize it yet. That’s our model for parenthood.
This article is courtesy of Parenting Teens Magazine.
Toby Simers is a therapist in private practice in St. Louis, Missouri. He spent 12 years in vocational ministry, graduated from the Willow Creek Internship program, and earned a Masters in Counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary. But more importantly, he’s a devoted and growing husband, father of two, and stepfather of two.