The other day in science class we were discussing how fingers are controlled by tendons attached to muscles in the forearm. This led to a hilarious session of 8th graders wiggling their fingers and watching the rippling beneath their skin up by their elbows (feel free to take a moment to check it out). I said, “So tonight when your parents ask what happened in school today, you can just roll up your sleeve and show them!” I immediately got responses ranging from “My mom will love this!” to “I never tell my parents anything; they’ll just keep bugging me.” Why do some kids share everything with their parents while others clam up like they’ve taken The Fifth?
Teens want their parents to be interested in their lives, but they don’t like it when they feel their parents are prying. How can you know when you’re doing which? Frankly, it mostly depends on the day, the mood, and the personality you’re facing. Before you ask any questions, wave your parental thermometer around and take a reading on your teen. Does the thermometer read “sullen,” “irritable,” “tired,” or “crabby-for-no-reason-at-all?” Smile, wave, and sidestep your teen for now. If it says “relaxed,” “open,” “bubbly,” or “anxious-to-tell-you-something-you-might-not-find-funny” – go for it!
Now imagine for a minute that you’re telling a co-worker or your spouse about a fender bender you witnessed. Some guy tried to go around a car that was going the speed limit, and he misjudged the distance and ran up on the curb. You’re hoping your listener will see the humor in it, but instead you get, “You thought that was funny? What if the guy had been hurt? He could’ve caused another accident! You need to think some more about what is funny and what isn’t!” Or maybe you can’t even get through the story because of interruptions: “Where did this happen? What color was the car? How old was the driver?” Until you get exasperated and just give up. Would you want to share another story with that listener? Not likely.
Yet this is often the response of a parent to a teen’s story. Your teen is experiencing emotions very much like yours and much LESS like a 10-year-old’s. Try to respond the way you would to an adult: with interest, but not interrogation; with openness but not judgment; with your full attention but not intensity. Don’t make the story more than it was, and don’t make the teller feel foolish for sharing (“That’s it? That’s all there is?”) You’ll find yourself hearing more than you did before.
You can also save your burning questions for later. Casually ask, “You know when you told me about that kid who was faking having gas in the classroom? You wouldn’t do something like that, would you?” In the teen world, understatement is your passkey to more information. “Going off” on your teen or asking “a bazillion questions” will get you banned from the club. Play it cool, and you’ll find yourself having an enjoyable conversation. Trust me – I do it dozens of times every day!