Let’s Stop Sabotaging Our Conversations with Our Teenagers

I’ve done it countless times. When it comes to talking with my teenage daughters, you can bet money I’ll say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question, and inadvertently cut short the promise of a satisfying conversation.

Apparently I’m not the only one. If you Google “talking with your teen” you’ll come up with 2.83 million hits in less than half a second–and that’s with our sketchy internet connection. It has also been a subject of this blog before.

That’s why I was so grateful to discover Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk on 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation, and her book, We Need to Talk: How to Have Meaningful Conversations (Harper Wave, 2017). The book’s an easy, enjoyable read, and something I highly recommend. Her advice applies to everyone, but it is especially applicable for those of us raising teenagers. At the very least, watch her TED talk when you’re done reading this.

A public radio interview host and a mother of a teenager herself, Headlee’s work has given me valuable insight into what I can do to improve my conversations (and hopefully relationships) with my teenage daughters. Here’s what I’ve been working on:

Being Curious: Headlee lays this groundwork for us:“Enter every conversation assuming you have something to learn (from your teenager) and you won’t be disappointed.” My adolescent daughters are encountering a world that I can barely keep up with, and, as adopted teens living in a trans-racial family, their view of that world is strikingly different from mine. They are learning more than I can comprehend and they have a lot to teach me. They are no longer parroting every opinion they’ve heard me say over the years; they’re developing opinions and viewpoints of their own. I need to enter conversations with them thinking, “What can I learn from this?” (about the world, their world, about them as individuals). “Why do they think the way they do?” And “What if they’re right?”

Checking My Bias:  “The purpose of listening is to understand, not endorse,” says Headlee. So when my Guatemalan daughter kept bringing up the desire to dye her hair blonde, I set aside my perceptions and opinions of the latest hair-dying craze.  I let her get out all her thoughts on the subject, without interruption.  I didn’t argue my counterpoint; I just had to listen and try to understand. And when I did, I finally understood that she was looking to fit in with the kids at school, who look so much like their birth-moms; if her hair color was closer to mine, she’d have that connection with me. By listening to her, I understood that this was something she wanted and needed to go through, so I let her. “There is no belief so strong that it cannot be set aside temporarily in order to learn from someone who disagrees,” says Headlee.  “Don’t worry; your beliefs will still be there when you’re done.” Just as my preferences regarding hair color have not changed.

Listening for the Sounds of Silence: Silent pauses allow for the conversation to breath–don’t fight it. According to Headlee, the average gap between one person ending a sentence and the other responding is about 200 milliseconds. We are quite literally not taking the time to think before we speak. I need to let the pauses be, to not jump to fill in every silent second. When I wait, my daughters open up even more and our conversation goes deeper.  After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

14018029530599Being Present: When talking with my teenagers, I need to show them the same kind of respect I expect them to show me and I do that by giving them my full attention.  I close my laptop, put my phone out of sight, turn off the burner, and turn toward my daughter so that I can focus on her and our conversation. I try to put whatever I am doing aside and make time for her. This has often led to a backlog of laundry, frantic dogs shoved outside, and take-out dinners when the fridge is full of ingredients–and that’s ok.

Staying the Course: When my girls are opening up to me, I need to keep my mind from wandering and daydreaming. Did I remember to send out that email? What’s the weather supposed to be like this weekend? Stay focused! And, when I correct trivial mistakes of data or grammar or challenge a mistaken memory, it derails the conversation and quickly shuts it down.  If it’s not critical to the discussion, I need to let it slide.

Emotion over Logic: When my daughter makes the effort to talk to me in person, emotions, empathy, and honesty are laid bare. Like all of us, she is an emotional being; like all teenagers she is an EMOTIONAL BEING. This is not a place for logic.  If I try to use logic to respond to her emotions, our conversation is doomed to failure because logic attempts to negate emotion (think Dr. Spock). But emotions are good and important and we want our teens to develop emotionally as well as intellectually.  My daughter has a right to her emotions, so I validate her feelings and try to be supportive. Typically, once her emotions have had their moment center-stage, they quickly return to the wings and she starts comprehending things more fully.

Establishing office hours: (You won’t find this one in Headlee’s book, but it’s something my daughter and I have recently figured out.) My teenage daughter’s digital clock often comes up against my middle-aged sundial when, come 11:00 pm, she wants to “talk.” At that hour of the night, I just can’t. Conversely, when I pick her up from school I’m firing off questions about her day before she’s even had a chance to buckle into her seat. The thing is, she’s so exhausted at that time of her day that she just can’t.  So, we’re learning to respect each other’s office hours. I greet her with a “Glad to see you” and “I missed you” and hold off on any questions until she’s had some time at home to unwind and is ready to talk. In the same way, she journals her late night topics so that I can get the sleep I need and we set time aside later in the week, or on the weekend, to catch up.

There are two more lessons I’m learning that are so important that they deserve their own space. Join me tomorrow and Friday where we’ll examine how we may unknowingly be sabotaging be own our efforts at communicating with our teenagers.