Looking through parenting articles around this time of year, you’re guaranteed to find directives about what to do with your kids this summer. For the younger ones in elementary school, parents are eager to find “fun” activities. What I find fascinating is that as children age and move through adolescence the quest moves more toward school-based programs and/or part-time work. While these activities enhance a teenager’s development, summer could be a time when parents spend time to get to “know” their teenagers. Stress levels are often lower in the summer months, and with that, the opportunity to enhance this changing relationship (between parents and teens) seems ripe.
In my conversations with parents of teenagers over the years, I’ve heard a common (and real) concern: “I feel like I’m losing my daughter/son.” I could do a quick piece on cognitive restructuring and inform parents that they are not losing their child; the relationship is changing and they are no longer parenting a small child. That is very true and accepting that reality takes time, but there are some practices adults and parents can put into place immediately if they want to improve their relationships with teens, or at least understand more about them.
One of the greatest sources of frustration in any relationship is the belief that the person to whom we are talking doesn’t understand our perspective. Often times, this is exactly how teens perceive their parents and other adults when it comes to understanding them: they just don’t “get” them. And this may not simply be because the adult lacks empathy; sometimes it is because the teen fails to explain themselves, for fear that they will be judged. But there may be another underlying reason.
Research shows that most of our communication takes place in the context of tone and body language: it is not so much what we say, but how we say it. Our facial expressions can speak volumes. When it comes to trying to communicate with teens, things become even more complex. Neuroscientists like Yurgelun-Todd of the University of Utah found that teens use a different part of their brain when reading facial expressions. While conducting research at Harvard in 2006, Yurgelun-Todd discovered that teens identified facial expressions quite differently than adults. So, while adults may read a facial expression as fear, teens may see anger. In the context of a conversation, while a parent or teacher is trying to communicate disappointment to an adolescent, that teenager may react quite defensively. Add in the fact that teens experience emotions two to three times greater than adults…you can see where I’m going with this.
Whenever I work with parents, counselors and teachers, I stress the importance of trying to remove judgment from any conversation with adolescents.
Although we may not judge them with our words, our faces may say something else; it is crucial to be mindful of whether our eyebrow is up or if we shake our head in disapproval. Even with all of this, they may be misreading us, so I invite adults to follow up their comments with, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” It may be more beneficial to ask that 14-year-old if they could sum up what you just said to them.
This is no easy task, especially when what you’re hearing might be very upsetting, but if we want to hear more from our teens, learn more from them and understand more about them, we have to let them know we are interested. And this learning is rarely on our terms: teens will open up when they are ready, maybe at 11:30 on a Monday night after an exhausting day.
So, it would seem that as school ends and those relaxing feelings return, this might be the time to ask your kids, “What would you like to do this summer?” And follow it up with a sincere, “I hope we can spend some time together doing whatever it is you like to do.” When teens feel heard and are understood, free of judgment, they will feel like you get them, and then you’ve got them…at least for the summer.
Terence J. Houlihan is the director of school counseling at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle. An adjunct professor in the graduate school of education at CUNY Lehman College, he speaks to educators and parents across the United States and other countries about the developmental changes associated with adolescence. He can be reached at email@example.com.