Teens are at the developmental stage where their life focus is moving away from their family of origin to creating their own family in the future.
Their prefrontal cortex, their thinking and analyzing brain, won’t be fully developed until the mid-20’s. So, as parents, we watch this process with often feelings of concern, fear, and a deep desire to protect and control them to make sure they make it through this stage without too many traumas.
Teens will reject parents who are trying to protect them by telling them what to do. Instead, i encourage parents to learn how to be a supporter when your teen is grappling with solving their own challenges. Deciding what is a challenge for them to solve and not you, is another issue that is discussed in my post Do You Know Your Parenting Role?.
In the Supporter Role, tell your teen that they will make the final decision about their challenge. Tell them that you are here to support them as they think about the options and come up with a first solution to try. It’s important that teens learn that we don’t always make the best decision the first time. We learn from our failures.
There are 5 steps in the Supporter Role. This article focuses on Step 2 – LIsten Openly.
The goal of this step is for your teen to feel that they can talk about whatever they are feeling or thinking about the issue without being judged, evaluated, or told to come up with a decision. You are providing the loving and supportive space to untangle their confused mind and make some sense of what’s going on. When you tell them what to do and it’s their problem to solve, they will doubt themselves more. You can get full details on this process in my book, Ally Parenting: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Transform Conflict Into Cooperation.
Step 2: Listen Openly
To keep the conversation flowing, each teen needs different responses from you. It is important that the teen feels connected, heard and safe. Emotional connection builds trust and rapport and keeps the teen sharing.
Some people, which includes adults, like their feelings validated and others find talking about their feelings too intimate. These more “thinker” types prefer a more “third person” or “abstract” empathetic wording to feel safe. You will discover the best approach with your teen by trial and error. When you speak in a way that shuts down communication, simply apologize and try again.
To decide what to say, listen for the feelings and meaning behind the teen’s words. You are not reflecting their words as in reflective listening in this step. Instead, your responses are tentatively letting them know that you are listening, that you care about them and that you are available for support. Your intention is not to be right or judgmental. Your intention, at that moment, is to listen with unconditional support and acceptance so your teen can process their thoughts and feelings. You want them to learn the evaluation process.
This is a very challenging skill to learn yet well-worth the time and effort. The benefit will be an amazing joyful feeling of deep connection and love.
Here are some empathetic statements to get you started.
The more you practice, the more you will discover what words, or omission of words, keeps the conversation flowing. Keep saying empathetic comments, not questions, until the emotions have been released. Sometimes, problem solving together will follow; then you can ask questions.
“That sounds like a real problem.”
“It’s hard to know what to do.”
“You look like it’s really stressing you out.”
“You seem overwhelmed, upset, unhappy, determined….etc.”
“I think you’d rather be doing something more fun right now.”
“Yeah! Algebra has never been your favorite subject.”
“It can be hard going through what you are experiencing right now.”
“I can give you my total attention for …… minutes. I am interested.”
“That seems really hard, difficult, challenging, frustrating, almost impossible….etc.”
“Mmmm. I see.”
“I’m here for you. You’re safe with me.”
Please note that you may experience an inner struggle while making empathetic comments. You may think, “enough. Let’s solve this problem.” Watch for this tendency to want to move to Step 3 is to Discuss Ideas and Choose a Solution before your teen is ready.
Learning when and how to transition into problem-solving without being rejected, is another skill that can be learned but first master the art of using empathetic phrases to build trust, and connection so your teen will keep talking to you. Your skillful handling of the Supporter Role is a wonderful gift to give your teen and yourself.
©2020 Cynthia Klein, Bridges 2 Understanding, has been a Certified Parent Educator since 1994. She works with parents and organizations who want more cooperation, mutual respect and understanding between adults and children of all ages. Cynthia presents her expertise through speaking,online workshops, private parent coaching sessions and her book, Ally Parenting. Contact Cynthia at bridges2understa.wpstagecoach.com, cynthia@bridges2understanding,com, or 650.679.8138 to learn more about creating the relationship you want with your children.