Mirror, Mirror – Minus Two Tablespoons

This morning on the radio I heard that a successful salesman will mirror the temperament of his client.  What great advice for dealing with teens!  If your teen is excited about something, you should share that excitement.  And if she’s disappointed, your face and tone should reflect her mood.  Almost.

Have you ever used a recipe that called for “2 cups minus 2 tablespoons” of milk?  This always puzzles me; how did someone figure out that just that little bit less will make a difference?  However, when dealing with teens, just a little bit less of whatever emotion they’re exhibiting is definitely a wise option.

So when he slams the door behind him and shouts, “Guess what?!  I made the VARSITY TEAM!!” you don’t have to shout, “WAY TO GO!!”  You should, however, wear a big smile and congratulate him instead of shrugging and saying, “Oh.  How nice.”  Conversely, when she flings herself onto the couch and mutters, “My life sucks,” it’s not the time to clap your hands and suggest a Girls’ Night Out.   Lower your voice, look concerned, and ask casually, “Bad day?”

Mix up your metaphors – mirror what your teen is feeling, but hold back a little.  About 2 tablespoons should do.


The Yes-Yes List

After listing how  NOT to communicate with your teen (see “The No-No Rules“), it seems only fair to give you a list of techniques for strengthening communication.

1. Respond with Empathy.  If you’ve read any of my blogs in the past two years, you’re not surprised that this tops the list.  It’s the most powerful tool I have in my classroom, and with my own sons.  Actually, it’s a most powerful tool in conversation with anyone of any age.  We all want to know that someone understands us, and a comment of “Oh, I know what you mean” or “Wow, you’ve been going through a lot” will go straight to someone’s heart.

2. Prove you’re really listening.  Mute (or turn off) the television.  Close your laptop.  Swivel away from your desk.  Ignore your phone.  Make eye contact and show that you’re – uh – “all ears.”

3. Protect his dignity.  If you know it makes him uncomfortable, or if he’s embarrassed by the topic, then don’t bring it up in front of someone else.  This includes his siblings, who will either enjoy seeing him writhe or use it against him later, or both.

4. Be available. Stay up for an extra half hour if that’s when she wants to talk.  Put off the household chores for a little longer.  Get to that meeting a few minutes late.  When your teen is in the mood to open up, do all you can to accommodate her.

5. Clarify what you’re hearing. Make sure you’re getting it right.  Say, “Let me get this straight” or “So what you’re saying is. . .”  Don’t be afraid to say, “I understood it up to this point, but could you explain the next part?”

6. Listen seriously. Even if you find what he’s saying hilarious, don’t let on (you can phone a friend later and have a good laugh).  If he is taking himself seriously, you should too.  It may not seem as important as worrying about how you’re going to pay the mortgage, but in his life, it’s everything.

7. Be authentic. Don’t say you think it’s a great idea if you don’t mean it.  Take the neutral ground: “Hmm, I’ll have to think about that,” or ask a leading question: “Do you have any idea what a pet piranha would eat?”

8. Learn to text.  Most teens won’t take a phone call from their parents, but they will answer a text within a few seconds.

9. Use empathy. This is not a misprint; empathy is important enough to mention twice. Instead of lecturing when she gets sunburned, just say, “Oh, ouch.”  Instead of downplaying reaching a higher level in his video game, try “Bet that makes you happy.”  Let your teens know you get it, and they’ll be more likely to share more often.

Don’t try to do all of these at once; pick one and practice it until it becomes a natural response, then work on another.  By the time you get really good at communicating, your teen will be a young adult who looks forward to chatting with you!

The No-No Rules

Here are nine ways to ensure your teen won’t open up and share with you:

1. Interrupt. Cut her off before she gets to the end of her story.  Better yet – predict how her story will end and finish her sentences for her.  For best results, interrupt with a question about chores or homework being done.

2. Downplay feelings.  Especially if he’s really excited about something, or really angry at someone, be sure to say, “You think that’s a big deal?  You should try living my life!”

3. Raise your voice.  Your teen is guaranteed to clam up if she thinks you’re “going off” on her.

4. Use Always and Never.   Be sure to point out his faults, especially how he always forgets to be responsible or how he never treats you with respect.

5. Criticize.  Complain about her clothes, her hair and her friends.  Tell her how disappointed you are in her grades and in her behavior.

6. Use half an ear.  Say “Uh-huh” and “Mm-hmm” to make it sound like you’re listening even though you’re not.  Tell yourself he won’t know the difference.

7. Belittle her in front of others.  Tell your friends and family members about her faults and past mistakes when she’s standing right there.  Describe a situation that really embarrasses her, and then expect her to laugh along.

8. Be judgmental.  Ask “What were you thinking?” or point out how immature he’s being.  Remind him that he will never get a decent job with an attitude like that.

9. Solve his problems for him.  Make him feel inferior by telling him what he should do.  Don’t let him gain any self-confidence by allowing him to persevere on his own.

(What’s that? You want me to publish the other list next week?  I’m thinking you might be right. . .)

Persuade; Don’t Push

When I rented a car in Arizona last week, the lady at the desk was pretty persuasive.  She asked me how much insurance coverage I wanted, and when I declined any, she said, “Okay, no problem.  Of course, our $12 per day charge is far less than what you’ll pay for a deductible.”  Only $12?  I was tempted – but I resisted.

“We’ve got you down for a standard car – would you like to upgrade to a full-sized car for only $11.99 more per day?”  Again I declined, citing better gas mileage as a factor  “You know, there’s not really much difference between the mileage of a standard Nissan Cube and a full-sized Ford Taurus,”  she said, not looking up from her computer.  A Nissan Cube?  I knew my husband wouldn’t like that, and I was tempted to switch, but I held firm one more time.

Then she hit me with the prepay-to-refill question.  I’d heard the spiel before:  buy a full tank now and save about two dollars a gallon over what I’d pay if I returned it less than full without prepaying.  I always refuse this offer, promising to refill before returning, but this time she almost persuaded me when she said, “You probably know that because of safety issues, there aren’t any gas  stations within a mile of the airport.”  With great resolve I turned her down one more time, but as I walked away from the counter I was second-guessing myself.

This woman used no pressure, no scare tactics, no threats.  I was disarmed by her offhand manner, her attitude of  “It doesn’t matter to me either way, but you should know. . .”  What a great technique for dealing with teens!

Suppose your daughter has a big science test this week.  You could try nagging and threatening:  “You’d better be studying for that test!  If you get another low grade, I’m going to ground you until the end of the quarter!”  Or you could try a less pushy, more subtle approach:  “How are you going to celebrate when your science test is over?” or maybe “Guess I’d better start saving my dollars for your A in biology, huh?”

By using a less threatening approach, you may not get the immediate response you’d like – “Hey!  I’m off to study for my biology test!” – but you will have planted a seed and provided a way for her to saunter off and pretend she was planning on studying all along.   Mission accomplished; conflict avoided.

My rental car wasn’t a Nissan Cube; it was a Nissan Altima, which is what I drive at home.  I didn’t get into any accidents, and I was able to fill up the tank only ten miles from the airport.  It was a good thing I hadn’t let her change my mind.

But I did hear her voice in my head all weekend long. . .

An Interesting Mystery

Interesting winter weather in my backyard

I like interesting weather.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s hot, cold, sunny, frosty, rainy, snowy, or windy – as long as it’s not a flat, uniformly gray sky, I love it.  I also love interesting students, especially those who aren’t what we call “traditional learners.”

Each year I face a new group of students; some will talk too much and others won’t say enough.  Some will complete every homework assignment on time, while others will struggle just to complete every assignment.  Some won’t be able to keep track of their homework; others will help me keep track of mine.  They’re all interesting to me, and I love the challenge of uncovering each one’s quirks and finding out what makes them tick.

I read a book recently in which the author said we should view kids as mysteries to be solved rather than as problems to be fixed.  What great advice, not only for teachers, but also for parents!

We can’t underestimate the impact of parenting, but there are many traits that children are just born with, such as organizational skills (or lack thereof), an extroverted (or introverted) personality, a strong will (or a compliant nature).  Parents who take the time to understand the workings of their kids’ minds and hearts will be more effective and have closer relationships.

As their children become tweens and teens, parents should guard against assuming they know what their kids are thinking.  Take the time to listen, to observe, and even occasionally, to ask.  Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with your teen, search for clues to the mystery of how your adolescent will become a young adult.

I guarantee the plot will be full of unexpected twists and turns!

“You Don’t Care!”

My friend asked for advice because her 11-year-old son likes to throw this phrase at her, and she’s getting tired of hearing it.  She knows he doesn’t really think she doesn’t care, but it’s getting on her nerves all the same.

I suggested she explain to him that he’s confusing “caring” with letting him have his own way.  For example, he wants it quiet on the way to school so he can finish his homework.  When she won’t shush his brothers, she’s accused of not caring.  She can encourage him to use an “I” message, as in – “I’m so frustrated by all this noise!” – instead of attacking her.  Or he can think of other solutions, such as completing his homework the night before, getting up a little earlier, or wearing headphones in the car.  But she should definitely point out that they both know she does care, so it’s an unfair accusation.

I also suggested she could call it like it is and tell him he’s just being manipulative, and she doesn’t like it.  She could mention that such comments actually make her less willing to help him.   At 11, he will appreciate being involved in an adult-ish conversation (with big words), as well as being involved in the solution.

Parents should keep in mind that such comments are usually strategic tactics designed to deflect attention away from the issue at hand.  What parent isn’t sensitive to being accused of not being perfect enough?

Here’s a tip:  just put up your “Nice-try-kiddo” deflecting shield and let such remarks bounce right off of you!