It seems crazy to have to admit this. It’s such a ridiculous thing to face up to, but here’s the truth of it: I don’t know how to talk to my son. You’d think, after parenting him for the past 16 years, I’d have a few ideas. But engaging Ethan in conversation just seems to get harder, not easier.

Recently, in desperation, I sat down to make a list of killer "conversation starter" questions to ask my son. And yes, it felt just as weird as it sounds. Coming up with fun ice breakers for a youth group is one thing, but who does that to spark conversations with their own child? Worse still, it turned out to be a short list. When the only new idea for a conversation starter I could come up with was shouting "Fire! Fire!" outside my son’s room, I knew I was in trouble. It was time to get professional help.

My first vote is always for inexpensive help, so instead of consulting parenting experts, I turned to their books. All were helpful, but two* quickly convinced me I had everything backwards: I was starting with the wrong questions. The questions that promise to unlock deeper conversations with my son are not infallible discussion starters I can lob at him; the most important questions are ones I need to ask myself.

Pondering these questions, and the wisdom behind them, has profoundly changed the way I relate to my teen. If you’ve been interested enough to read this far, I’m sure you’ll find them helpful too.

Question 1: Do you understand the difference between parenting children and parenting teens?

As kids hit adolescence and begin morphing into strange new forms of their earlier selves, their parents’ communication style needs to morph too. In childhood, we control much of our children’s lives, and our habitual conversation style is focused on issuing commands – commands that are often important for our child’s education and safety. By the teen years, however, that’s a dangerous mode to get stuck in.

Directives to get-out-of-bed-or-you’ll-miss-the-bus-and-take-out-the-garbage-before-you-leave will still be necessary, but if that’s all parents communicate, their teen is likely to drift far from them emotionally. Now, more than ever, it’s important to break away from nagging "do as I say" monologues. At this stage of their life, emerging adults don’t want to feel controlled; instead, they need to feel valued.

If you genuinely desire a close relationship with your teen, it may be time to learn a new parenting style – one perhaps best described as the patient pursuit of your teen’s heart. It’s a long-term process of creating the right "relationship environment" for conversation, then waiting for your son or daughter to reveal what’s really on their mind.

Despite appearances, your teen isn’t indifferent to your involvement. Far from it. A son who slinks through the front door and into his room without so much as a "Hello" really is desperate to be noticed; a daughter who simmers through family meals in sullen silence is desperate to share what’s on her heart. But no teen will share with a parent who doesn’t seem to care. First, you’ll need to convince your child of three things:

  • that they are supremely important to you,
  • that you are interested in their opinions and aspirations,
  • and that you see – and love – the amazing adult they’re becoming (even as they make mistakes along the way).

Action steps: Start laying the groundwork for closer communication by seizing opportunities to affirm your teen. Let them know you see the things they do right, not just the things they do wrong. Be specific in praise and try to praise effort and character traits rather than focusing solely on accomplishments. Make it a habit to ask for your teen’s opinion, and always treat their opinions with respect. Let them know you are praying for them, for specific situations.

Question 2: Do you understand that communicating begins with listening?

After years of telling children how to think and behave – i.e., parenting in "control mode" – learning new communication skills isn’t easy. But certain skills are essential if you hope to have your teen trust you with their deepest thoughts and fears. First and foremost, learn to:

  • stop all the "teacher talk." Focus first on listening, so you can truly understand your teen’s perspective, and . . .
  • resist the urge to override your teen’s opinion, or worse, belittle their point of view – nothing will shut them down faster.

Good listening isn’t passive. Done well, the very act of listening speaks to a teen and tells them they are valued. So keep in mind the wisdom of James 1:19 and be "quick to listen." When your child initiates a conversation, stop whatever you are doing and give them your full attention. Pause the TV. Turn your back to your computer screen. If you really can’t engage in the conversation right then and there, arrange to revisit the discussion later, at a specific time and place. And here’s something to practice until you’re perfect: listening without interrupting! Try to stay focused on how your teen is feeling and what they are trying to say – not what you want to say next.

When you do speak, you’re in danger of squelching the conversation if you give your opinion right away. Remember, your role now is not to control, but to help your son or daughter explore their options before making their own decision. No matter how goofy or alarming your teen’s ideas may sound, it’s important to stay calm. Your best approach is to ask questions that will help your son or daughter further examine their thoughts and reasoning.

Is there a place for sharing your views? Absolutely. But first, show you respect your child’s independence by asking permission to share your perspective. Simply ask something like, "Would you like to hear what I think?" Or, "I had to make a similar decision once. Can I tell you about it?" It’s possible your son or daughter may not open to hearing you out then and there. If that’s the case, you’ll need to respect that.

Action steps: Let your teen know you want to be approachable. Build a habit of saying something like, "Tonight I need to _____ but if you want to come by and chat, I can make time for that." Pay attention to times in the day when your teen seems more talkative than usual, and make sure you just "happen" to be around then too. Keep your personal "sleep account" full so you can afford an unexpected, but important, late-night chat. Go out for fast food with your teen, one-on-one, once a week. It might feel weird at first, but within four weeks, you’ll both realize what you’ve been missing out on.

Question 3: Do you understand the importance of patience and self-control?

As you seek more intimate conversations with your teen, try to keep a long-term perspective. If a teen has been feeling neglected or misunderstood, it will take time to win their trust and confidence – and each interaction you have in the interim will matter. In his book Have a New Teenager by Friday, Dr. Kevin Leman astutely reminds parents, "Whenever you talk with your teenager, you’re either opening the door for future communication or you’re shutting him down."

Time is a powerful ally – for both of you – so practice the discipline of putting a conversation on hold. If a discussion is getting heated, call a time out. It’s much better to walk away saying, "Let’s talk about this later when we are both a little calmer," than risk blowing the relationship equity you’ve worked so hard to build.

Practicing patience relieves the pressure within a conversation in other ways too. If your opinion is unwelcome, why force the issue? Revisit the topic later when your teen seems in a more receptive mood. Teens experience a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of emotions, so your opportunity is likely to come around soon!

Action steps: Speed up the process of growing closer to your teen by exploring your similarities and differences. Consider their personality profile. How is it different from yours? What excites and irritates them? What is your teen’s love language? What interests do you share? What topics are you willing to learn more about, to build more common ground?

© 2012 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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