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Talking Teenagers

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Emuna Braverman

Why teenagers aren't talking to parents and what you can do about it.

A few summers ago I asked a large group of teenage boys the following question: "Your friends are doing something wrong and you're tempted. Whom do you turn to for advice?"

Their answers were (listed in order of frequency):

  1. nobody
  2. friends,
  3. teachers,
  4. and finally parents.

But parents, don't despair. I asked an important follow-up question: When you are tempted, what is the first thing that comes to mind? 70% of the teens answered, "What my parents will think." Your example, your exhortations, your values, your approval or disapproval counts -- a lot.

Even though we may embarrass them, even though they may say (or think), "You don't have a clue…" and swagger off, even though they think, "Times were different then" (and perhaps they were), they do value us.

They're not settled in their own skins so they're picking on ours. But they're watching us. They're listening and absorbing. And we're having an impact. We just have to hang in there.

Perhaps you feel like the chauffeur, the laundress, the cook and the bank (with a very lenient credit policy). They seem to take you for granted. Yet our adolescents are paying attention to who we are and what we stand for. We are their pre-eminent role models, and our values and actions (especially our actions!) are shaping our teenagers in the most profound of ways. We are providing our adolescents with a moral compass in this most tumultuous of times.

My friend's father told him the following pointed story: When you were growing up, all my friends were rushing out to buy the latest music and the latest fashions so they could relate to their teenagers. I decided on a different approach. I figured that if I just stayed where I was - the same person with the same principles -- you'd always know where to find me.

I gleaned another interesting insight from that little survey of mine. I wanted to understand the root causes of teenagers' lack of open communication with their parents. Why are parents number four on their list, beneath nobody, friends and teachers? Stipulating, of course, that some of it is "just a phase," why aren't our teenagers talking -- to us anyway?

They may not trust us. Have we given them any cause? They may be afraid of punishment. They may think we're not listening. They may think we won't understand.

Often, the main reason teenagers don't turn to parents when tempted is their fear of hurting us. Believe it or not, our teenagers care about us and our reactions. They may misguidedly think they are protecting or sparing us by keeping their own counsel. It's our challenge to create an atmosphere where our values are clear -- but our tolerance is also. They need to know that we love and accept them, no matter what.

Another big roadblock is fear of punishment. If a child voluntarily tells you private information, invoke the attorney-client privilege. The information doesn't leave the room and your teen is granted immunity. You want to reward the openness and honesty. You want to applaud his or her courage in coming forward. You want your children to feel confident they can come to you in the future. You want your teen to be proud they told you, comforted they told you, reassured they told you, and not feel foolish for doing so.

What if your adolescent didn't confess on his own? What if you discovered something inappropriate accidentally? Then there is justification for more severe consequences. Trust has been violated and the communication must be rebuilt. But the dialogue must still be open and loving. Let it be language of disappointment and hope for the future, not words of anger and rejection.

There is frequently no one to talk to at school. There must be someone to talk to at home. Let's make sure we position ourselves to become that someone. How?

  1. Availability. We just can't schedule quality time with our teenagers, at least not on a regular basis. We need to be around enough so that when they want to talk, be it early in the morning (extremely unlikely!) to late at night (most probably!), we're there. If we're always busy, if we're always tired, they'll give up.
  2. Acceptance. There has to be tolerance for the fads and foibles of adolescents. Some of their clothes, shoes and hairstyles may look ridiculous to us, but if we're always attacking them on the little things, they'll never come to us with the big ones. You don't have to read the book, but "Don't sweat the small stuff."
  3. Calm. Even for the larger issues, not losing our temper is crucial. We are not angels; we all have our moments when we lose control (and they are so provocative!) but our teenagers need to feel they can be heard and responded to, not just screamed at.
  4. Love. Most important -- constantly reaffirm your love for them. Look past the externals to tell them (and remind yourself) what is wonderful about this child. You can do it! And never stop telling them.

If we work at implementing these tools, our teenagers will still say the darnedest things. But at least they'll say them to us.

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