A recent article in the Washington Post written by parenting journalist and survivor-of-the-teen-years mom Kathryn Streeter discusses some common mistakes parents make when raising teens. We found the article full of good, solid advice, but we’re going to reframe the content in much the same way a therapist might teach a teen to do during a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) session. The original title of the article is “Seven Mistakes Parents Make With Teens.” We’re going to turn those seven mistakes around, condense them, and offer you five actionable ways you can improve your relationship with your teenager.
How to Reframe
You probably know how to do this already. We’re simply going to point out how it works, so you can use it as a conscious technique in dealing with your kid, rather than something you do by instinct.
Reframing, in therapy, is all about changing negative self-talk to positive self-talk. For instance, if your teen is struggling with Algebra class, they might say something like:
“Omg, I’m so stupid. I suck at Algebra and I’m going to have to study forever just to pass.”
That same thought, reframed, would go something like this:
“Algebra is hard for me but I’m working at it and making small improvements every day.”
Reframing can be used for more than just self-talk, but for our purposes, we’re going to leave it at that: it’s about changing your perspective on something and allowing that change in perspective expand outward and resonate through different areas of your thought and behavior.
If you and your teen have gotten off-track in the way you communicate with one another, then the core of revamping your relationship might be a matter of reframing the way you approach the conversations you have with them.
Five Things to Reframe
At around age twelve or thirteen, kids change. We’re not going to go over all the physiological, psychological, and hormonal milestones they’re meeting and moving past – right now we’re going to talk about the way they talk.
Just a couple years ago – maybe just a couple of months ago – a simple question about their day might have led to fifteen minutes of free information about teachers, friends, what happened at lunch, what happened on the playground, and why that new kid on the bus always gets in trouble.
Nowadays, though, you ask a simple question and get a monosyllabic answer like yes or no.
You may get lucky and get three syllables: I dunno.
If that’s the state of play with your tween or teen, here are five things you can do to re-open those channels of communication and get them talking again. Heads up – we’re switching gears from the way they talk to you, and talking about how you talk to them:
- Be Respectful. Here’s the trick. We all know good and well your teen is not an adult. We also all know good and well they desperately want to be treated like adults. It’s almost an obsession with them. They can smell condescension and patronizing attitudes a mile away, and that makes them shut down faster than almost anything else. Being respectful to them means talking to them like they’re adults (even though you know they’re not) and approaching conversations with them more like you’re talking to a friend than you’re talking to a young child. Don’t misunderstand: you’re the parent, you’re the boss, you’re the boundary-setter and consequence-maker. We’re just saying that if you want them to open up, make sure you don’t talk to them like they’re in first grade.
- Be Fun. You don’t have to fake it. You like to laugh, connect, and make jokes, right? During conversations about typical, day-to-day things, drop the authority act. Let your hair down. Be silly and be corny. Or be witty and snarky (without being mean). Be yourself. Share your opinion. Your real opinion, not the vetted, sanitized, I’m-a-mom-or-dad version of your opinion. Share your actual self and you’ll be surprised: your teen will probably respond and start sharing their actual self, too.
- Be Present. The. Phone. Down. Part of being fun is being in the moment with your teen. Look at them, make eye contact, listen to them. Act like every word they say matters – even if you have fifty-seven-thousand work things on your mind. Even if you’re thinking about everything else on earth but the injustice of the last pop quiz in geometry or whether Taylor Swift should talk politics, pretend like you’re enthralled by the words coming out of their mouth. We think you’ll surprise yourself, because if you pay attention, what they’re saying will become genuinely interesting. After all, it’s your kid, they’re growing up, and it’s an amazing process to watch. Every moment counts.
- Be Open. This goes along with sharing your opinion. If you ask your teen how their day went and they grunt at you, then something differetn. Start by sharing something from your day. Even better, make it something that shows you being vulnerable. Maybe you sent an email to your boss with a glaring, obvious typo and you were stressed about it, Then you found out your boss never read the email in the first place, and it turned out you spent half the day worrying about nothing. Your kid will probably take your cue and open up about something that happened with them, too: a mistake they made, an issue they’re having with a friend, or something like that.
- Be Easy. Just like Lionel Richie in “Easy Like Sunday Morning.” When the stakes aren’t high, there’s no reason to put up walls between you and your teen. In the moment, drop the whole parenting act and talk to them, person-to-person. This does not mean stop being their parent and just be their friend. Far from it. We’re saying that to get them to want to talk to you, you need to make an adjustment. Listen to their music or watch one of their shows. Or maybe invite them to watch one of your shows with you and talk openly about interesting topics or issues that come up. Let it happen. When they sense you’re being open and easy, they’ll do the same.
Be a Parent When it Counts, Be a Friend When it Matters
Revamping your communication with your teen is about choosing your moments. Serious issues demand a serious attitude, but regular everyday conversations don’t require seriousness. They don’t require you to bring the version of yourself you bring to PTA meetings or talks about alcohol, drugs, and missing curfew. But here’s the secret: getting your teen to talk openly and honestly about those big things means practicing openness and honesty about the little things. You can reconnect. You can resurrect the rapport you had when they were seven and all they wanted to do was chatter about everything that happened that day.
It takes practice. It might not be easy to drop the parent act in those select moments. You might have to work through some discomfort around being open with your teen. It might not come naturally to simply be yourself around them.
But guess what? We think the secret to getting through that is the same thing we’ve been talking about all along: reframe it.
Then watch what happens.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.