As teens grow and gain their independence, it’s inevitable that they’re going to have opinions that we disagree with and make choices that we don’t understand.
When we’re trying to guide teenagers toward making good choices, nothing shuts down communication quicker than lecturing.
It seems counter-intuitive: we have all of this knowledge and experience, so why shouldn’t we share it? If our kids come up to us with ideas that we can clearly see are wrong, why not set them straight?
What doesn’t work
When we want to tell our teens what to do, it’s to teach them right from wrong. This is a great goal, but lecturing can backfire, making it harder for them to understand and respect our values.
I don’t know why people get all upset and freak out about drugs. If I hear you talk like that again, you’ll see the true meaning of freaking out.
I think I want to be a tattoo artist. I don’t need to finish high school for that. What are you, crazy? I can’t believe you said that. You have to finish high school.
My English teacher is such a jerk. I wouldn’t mind if she died. How dare you say that? She has to put up with a class of rowdy kids and make sure you know everything you need to go on to college.
Generally, our reaction to these scenarios is a roaring “NO WAY.” We don’t want our kids doing drugs, dropping out of school, or wishing death on authorities. But how effective is this approach at keeping our kids safe?
While reactions might get short-term compliance, they’re unlikely to change any hearts and minds.
Instead of learning right and wrong, many teens instead learn to not mention these topics.
How teenagers learn
Teenagers learn, not through lectures, but through their own experience, thoughts, and feelings.
Before teens are ready to listen, they need to know we care about their views. This isn’t done by saying something stilted, like “I care about your views,” but through acknowledging what they seem like they’re thinking or feeling.
Let’s look at some of the feelings underneath the examples:
I don’t know why people get all upset and freak out about drugs. They’re probably feeling dismissed, coddled, or discounted.
I think I want to be a tattoo artist. I don’t need to finish high school for that. They’re thinking about the future and maybe unsure of the path we set them on.
My English teacher is such a jerk. I wouldn’t mind if she died. They probably feel angry.
When you both feel heard
Shifting our conversations to include the feelings and thoughts of teens can actually make them more receptive to the information we’d like to share. It can feel awkward at first if we’re used to just giving orders. Like any skill, the more we practice it, the easier it becomes.
This kind of dialogue sets us up to be ongoing supports as they come to their own conclusions. We don’t sidestep our opinions, but we let them feel seen and understood first. This helps turn a confrontation into a conversation and makes it go smoother for everyone.
Let’s look at one of the examples where we react by listening and asking about their feelings. If we were to briefly summarize that conversation, it might look something like this:
I don’t know why people get all upset and freak out about drugs.
Like they’re treating you like a baby and telling you what do do?
Yeah. Like, what’s the big deal? Why do they care?
Why do you think?
To keep me from having fun.
Maybe that’s a trade off they want to take - safety for fun. Did you know that police have found drugs that are laced with formaldehyde and other nasty stuff?
That’s gotta be overblown. I’m not going to believe anything some police officer says.
Why don’t you look it up and let me know what you find? I know you don’t like the speakers your school brings in, but you know what they say: “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
By acknowledging their feelings and giving them a chance to figure it out for themselves, we’re letting the teens take the lead in adopting healthy behaviors.
Acknowledging teen’s feelings can have a snowball effect - when teens know they’re likely to be heard, they are more honest about their feelings. When we continue acknowledging their feelings, they feel even more empowered to share with us.