I received such a nice call from a parent this morning calling me “The Teen Whisperer” and this is not the first time I’ve been given this honorable title! So firstly, I would like to say thank you so very much from the bottom of my heart for those kind words. Secondly, I want to say that I am nothing but honored and privileged to get to spend time hearing your teen’s and young adult’s stories!
With that said, here are some of the “prefaces” that I use with young people to establish a trusting relationship and give them room to open up. Hopefully, you can employ some of these in your own conversations with your young person:
- Let them know that you have no agenda other than your own personal wish for them to be happy and healthy, in whatever form that takes for them. When we show young people that we are letting go of expectations and we do not have “something we are getting at” then we can set them at ease. Most adults in teen’s lives are attempting to steer them a certain way and the teens know this! So they show up already armored and looking for “the angle.” We have to back those words up with action and make sure we are checking ourselves when we want to fall into “steering.” We can acknowledge falling into this by saying something like, “I find myself really wanting to tell you that I think that behavior is dangerous and it scares me” or “I must acknowledge the fact that when you talk about this relationship I can’t help but feel like you deserve more.” When we can openly tell them that we find our brain getting into “mom-mode” then we can still be honest with them while also acknowledging that we have an agenda peeking through.
- Go ahead an address some “unknowns.” Usually teens/young people are unsure what may come back later to “bite them in the ass” and will withhold information because they don’t want it to be used against them. When the adults in young people’s lives can go ahead and take the guess work out of future situations, they are much more comfortable (usually) with proceeding honestly. Teens are still just kids in a lot of ways and they fear “getting into trouble.” When we can dispel HOW information is used and what will happen if/when something big does need to be discussed, then they have some clarity about the future of the relationship and can proceed in a more informed way.
- Do NOT ask questions you want a certain answer to. Ugh, even as an adult I find this so condescending when people do this! Let young people know right off the bat, when you ask a question it is SINCERELY because you are curious about THEIR answer. We need to let our young people know that we are not trying to trap them into a specific answer. This is where we get a whole bunch of “I don’t know’s” because they know they can’t give you the real answer because you’re poised ready to strike with a “HA! I told you so!” Or, they sit there terrified, searching their brain for the answer they think you want, but are so unsure of what it is and that you will be there ready and waiting with an eye roll and a condescending comment about how they should know the answer to this! Are you a mind reader? Well, they aren’t either.
- We need to allow “I don’t know” to be the real answer. They simply may not know! They might not have ever thought about it before. Or, more than likely if it is a question about a bad judgement call “I don’t know” is code for, “I know that was dumb, I feel ashamed or guilty, I should have known better.” In the first case, we can help explore with them some thoughts by offering, “Ok well, let’s think about it. What are some possible thoughts about that?” THEN SHUT UP! Let them THINK! Don’t immediately offer them a multiple choice answer (i.e. “Well, was it because of ______, ________, or _______?) In the second circumstance, we can help them process through that “face palm” moment and talk about how they might have done it differently if given the chance. (If I am sitting with a young person whose response is “I don’t know” to everything, I jokingly tell them that they have three “I don’t knows” they can use for the session and the rest of the answers they have to think about and come up with something! We usually have a good laugh and they get the picture.)
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but perhaps “prefacing” your intentions can work both to help set you up for sticking to a new way to approach your young person, and open the door to a more honest conversation.
If you would like help with this, practice, or some mediated conversations, please contact me to schedule a session at firstname.lastname@example.org I would love to help! There is no greater joy than watching a family finally be able to communicate in an open, honest, loving way 🙂