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How to Talk to Teenagers

How to Talk to Teenagers

The first step is to stop talking and listen, without any agendas.


“Can you talk some sense into my kid?”

I get this request pretty often. And my answer is: no. I can’t talk sense into people. If I could, I’d charge a lot more for what I do.

I’m not in the business of convincing. I’m in the business of listening.

I like to watch teenagers talk sense into themselves. It’s where the magic of therapy really happens.

At the risk of sounding like an absolute cheese ball, I call it “magic” because something appears out of apparent nothingness. Honesty and openness now shine from a face that once proclaimed: Sorry. We’re Closed.

Authenticity is the only currency they accept. We adults like to manufacture counterfeit authenticity, and although it may work for the fast-paced, cut-to-the-chase world of adulthood, it doesn’t fly with kids. It repels. You can't ‘sell’ them sincerity.

Why do teenagers place such a heavy demand for sincerity and purity of intent?

Because it plants a newfound hope, that maybe – just maybe – adulthood isn’t as ‘adulterated’ as they thought. Restoring this hope is what teenagers need today more than ever before. It gives them a sense of security. A reminder that the openness of childhood doesn’t necessarily come to an end; it just takes new shapes and forms.

So try giving them some unadulterated, undivided attention. Openly, non-judgmentally.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. But here are a few pointers to help unlock the doorway to a place where genuine communication may naturally evolve...

1. Check Your Motives

Remember, when teenagers are approached by adults, their defenses instantly activate (consciously or unconsciously). They aren’t accustomed to validation and curiosity. They’re accustomed to intrusion, instruction, lecturing, and power struggles. At least this is how they perceive it. As adults we are generally "guilty until proven innocent," and many of us have done a fine job at reinforcing this unfortunate trend.

Teenagers will instantly detect any ulterior motives. Don’t ask them how they’re doing because you want them to spill some secrets. Ask them how they’re doing because you want to give them what they so hardly get: undivided, heartfelt attention. The goal isn’t interrogation. It’s communication. Never forget that.

Related Article: Talking Teenagers

2. Be the Canvas, Not the Painter

Try to see the world from their eyes. Unless we are willing to momentarily suspend our frame of mind, there will be very little room for a bona fide personal exchange. We like to influence teenagers a lot more than we like to be influenced by them. It’s our comfort zone. We shall enlighten, and they shall become enlightened.

But teens resent this. It reinforces their subconscious fears that “growing up” means the end of spontaneity and the start of lifeless role-playing.

Surprise them with curiosity. Try shifting the gears. Let them lead the way. Become the listener they’ve never encountered. They will intuitively appreciate your willingness to step outside the box, which is precisely where teens like to play. Outside the box.

3. Look beyond the Screen

Teens and technology often go hand-in-hand. They like surfing through the waves of cutting-edge innovation and the various gadgets that offer it.

Instead of asking them to turn their screens off, try joining the fun. It’s an easy in. Meet them where they are. Ask them what they like to play, how they like to chat - Facebook? Twitter? BBM? G-Chat? Notice their excitement. Encourage it. If they feel passionate about something, delve into it! Even if they spend 20 minutes trying to explain why Angry Birds is the greatest invention since sliced bread – never roll your eyes. If it means something to them, it has value. Don’t undermine their values. Unless you want them to undermine yours.

Meeting them where they are means giving them home-court advantage. It goes a long way. If you can play on their court, they just may be willing to visit yours.

Once we’ve established a trusting relationship with a teenager, our odds of communicating with them increases exponentially. They have stuff on their minds. Lots of stuff.

So look beyond the screens and engage your teenager.

You might be pleasantly surprised with what you find.

December 31, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 17

(11) Sharlene' De'vaiople, March 17, 2012 8:29 PM

A very well written and expressed article! You write AMAZING articles! I myself currently have 9 teenage children, 4 of whom are twins and 3 of whom are triplets. I am an expert on them and frequently give parenting advice on teenagers. I also presently give wwekly classes at the Benoni High Synagogue on Monday nights from 6:30pm - 9:30pm and for more info phone 478-3982. Hope to hear from you! Best regards to everyone and wish them well from me and I hope you managing with Passover!

Diana, May 26, 2013 9:21 PM

parenting advice

Sharlene, Hi, you don't know me but I just read your posting and I need help with my teenager. I hope we can connect soon on the phone or via e-mail. Sincerely, Diana

(10) joey, January 7, 2012 5:11 PM

Unbelievable Article

Thank you Mr Joszef for your well written article. I think you should spread your words of wisdom to all parents of teenagers. - Shtetle Yid

(9) Anonymous, January 5, 2012 11:20 PM

great advice but how realistic?

I hear all the wise words in this article but just tonight my teenager started telling me about "all these great apps you can get" and I rolled my eyes and said, but why? why would you want them? and anyway, he doesn't own a phone, let alone a smart one! so how we we express displeasure while engaging them on their level?

Anonymous, January 6, 2012 4:29 PM

Rolling Eyes = Big No No.

Your teenager began telling you about "all these great apps you can get" and you rolled your eyes and said, "but why? why would you want them? you don't even own a phone!?" 1) Rolling our eyes at teenagers is the surest way to lose their trust. It shows we undermine their interests and don't value their points of view. I would definitely try to avoid eye-rolling as much as possible. It models intolerance and impatience. 2) Your reply sounds less curious than it does disapproving. An engaging reply would be more like: "Interesting. What about these apps gets you so excited? Which apps would you want to get if you had your own phone?" --- It sounds like you interpreted your teenager's comment about "apps" as some type of request for a phone (preferably a "smart" one.) so you may have felt the need to discourage the request (as to avoid its rejection) but your teen was simply expressing excitement about innovation. Why stump the excitement?

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