I Had A Bad Day

Mr. Grumpy

Bad days happen to all of us.  And while watching your best friend eat lunch with someone else might not compare to hearing rumors of layoffs at work, to your 13-year-old it’s a pretty big deal.

Imagine if, on your bad day, you  complained to a friend or spouse, and he responded, “That’s all you have to complain about?  I wish my life was so hard!”  Not only would you feel irritated, but you’d also hesitate to share with that person again.

If you feel that your teen doesn’t tell you much, check your responses.  Your teen or pre-teen considers herself more of an adult and less of a child, and she wants you to treat her as such.  Though she’ll still often respond like a child, sometimes she’ll surprise you with her maturity and insight.

The next time your teen whines about his terrible day, try responding as you would to a friend or co-worker:  “That does sound lousy.  Poor you.”  Don’t discount or solve any problems; just listen with empathy.  You’ll get more information and you’ll get it more often.

And the next time you have a bad day of your own, chances are good your teen will give you a little empathy in return!

Welcome to Your New Job

It’s time to quit your job.  No, not the one where you earn a paycheck – keep that one.  I mean the parenting job you’ve had for about 10 years or so.  It’s not that you’re not needed anymore – it’s just that your job description has changed.

During your first decade of parenting, your role was more like that of a personal servant.  You were supposed to make sure your children were happy and all their needs were met.  They in turn showed their appreciation with hugs and kisses and stories about everything that was going on in their heads and hearts.

But if your child has reached the age of 10 or beyond, your responsibilities have changed, and you weren’t even notified.  You are no longer expected to solve his problems and cheer him up.  In fact, if you try to do either at the wrong time, you may find yourself on the receiving end of an angry outburst or a cold shoulder.

Your new role is more like that of a consultant.  Be available, listen to the issue, show you understand, but offer a solution only if asked to do so.  Your son complains that his homework is too hard?  Tell him you remember how it got harder as you got older.  Your daughter complains that her friend is being mean?  Tell her you know that must make her unhappy.  If your help isn’t requested, then don’t give it.

Think of it as a promotion.  And your raise?  It will come in the form of a teen-ager who actually wants you around.



Bridge Builders and Burners

When I ask students what it means to build bridges, they say, “Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it.”  I sigh, roll my eyes, and explain that it means making a connection to somebody to build a relationship.  They’re surprised to hear such a thing.

As the school year winds down, some students are good at building bridges.  They realize they won’t be seeing certain people all summer (or even next year), so they can put up with them and show them some extra patience.

But then there are the bridge burners.  They won’t be returning (or they’re graduating), so they have an attitude of “doesn’t matter what I say, because I won’t be seeing you anymore anyway.”  They can make life difficult for those around them.

It’s a good idea for parents to chat with their teens at year’s end and see where they’re at emotionally.  Of course, this won’t be accomplished by marching up and asking point blank, “How are you feeling about the end of the year?”  You have to watch for your opportunity: a mellow moment at the end of the day, a relaxed time while watching TV, a lengthy car ride where nobody falls asleep.  Then be low-key and ask offhandedly, “Excited about the year ending?”

Be prepared to listen without too many questions or criticisms.  Comments of “Well, don’t worry. . .” or “Do you think that’s a nice thing to say?” will shut down communication.  Instead, use empathy with comments like “Oh, yeah, sounds tricky” or “Ouch, bet that hurts.” This will get you much farther and will show that you’re really listening.

An hour or a day later, you can say (again, offhandedly), “I’ve been thinking about what you said about (fill in the blank).  Want some advice?”  If not, let it go.  If so, give it as if you don’t care whether it’s taken or not.  Do be prepared that while your offer may be refused at first, you may be asked to advise a day or so later.

Just think – you’ll be building a bridge of your own!

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!

Four Simple Rules

I taught one of my favorite workshops yesterday – “Talking to Teens” – and was so surprised  by the enthusiastic response of the parents who attended that I’m going to repeat some of the main points here:

Speak Respectfully.  Once your child reaches the age of 11 or 12, your relationship will be better if you start speaking to him as you would to an adult.  Of course he won’t respond like a full-grown adult for another 10 years or so, but he will appreciate you for treating him with so much respect (and you’ll get better results).  For example, if your neighbor came into your house and left the front door open, you wouldn’t yell, “Hey, shut the door!  What’s the matter with you?  Are you trying to heat up the whole outdoors?”  You’d say, “Would you mind shutting that door, please?  We had a high heating bill last month.  Thanks so much!”  It will work like a charm with your teen, too.

Use Empathy. Being understood by the people who love us is a basic emotional need.  As adults, we are frustrated by people who try to fix our problems when all we want is for them to listen and let us vent.  If your friend called you to complain about her boss making her work extra hours, you wouldn’t say, “Well, you’d better get used to it.  There will always be people in your life that you won’t like!”  You’d say, “That seems unfair!  How about getting together for coffee and you can tell me all about it?”  In the same way, when your daughter complains about how much homework she has this weekend, instead of saying, “Well, you’d better get started on it then,” have a little empathy:  “Homework on the weekend always stinks.  Tell you what – how about if you work for an hour or so, and then we can go out for ice cream to cheer you up?”  Instead of avoiding Nagging Parent, your teen will look forward to sharing with Understanding Parent.

Don’t Downplay. Many of us have had the experience of complaining about how tough our day was, only to have the listener respond with, “You think that’s bad?  Let me tell you about my day.”  After which, very few of us will say, “You’re right – your day was worse than mine.  I’m sorry I complained.”  Most of us will walk away in disgust and go find someone who will commiserate with us.  If you won’t take the time to acknowledge that your teen had a hard day, she will go find someone who will listen to her misery.  To adults, teens seem to have it pretty easy, but think for a moment about how little control they have over their own lives.  Adults get to tell them when to get up, how to dress, what to eat, when to leave (or be ready to be picked up), when to do homework, when to go to bed – leaving many teens feeling like they have little control over their lives.  While it may not compare to losing your job or your house, the stress your teens feel is very real to them.  Take them seriously and let them know you do care about their problems.

Never Embarrass. There’s playful teasing, and then there’s downright embarrassing.  As your teen reaches puberty, he will feel self-conscious and anxious about appearing stupid.  Parents who know their kids’ sensitive issues but still bring them up in front of others are just asking to be excluded from their teens’ lives.  In the same way that I don’t want my husband to mention certain secrets of mine at a party, your teen doesn’t want you to share that he still uses a nightlight or was homesick at camp last summer.  Even if it seems silly to you and not worth getting upset over, listen to your teen’s requests and don’t bring up those embarrassing secrets.  This is also an age where public hugging and kissing might become an issue.  If your teen or pre-teen objects, strike a bargain:  “How about if I only kiss you in the car (or at home), where nobody can see?”  Or maybe you can settle on a high five or a fist pound with the understanding that you both know it means “I love you!”

If you want your teens to both listen to you and open up to you, follow these four rules:  Speak respectfully, use empathy, don’t downplay, and never embarrass.  They’ve always worked for me!

A Real-Life Example of Empathy in Action

As my husband and I sat gazing proudly across the arena at our high school junior, we could see immediately that he was NOT in a good mood.  It was Presidents’ Day, and we had driven 150 miles that morning to hear him sing.  We were facing another 150 miles back home after the concert, and we could tell already that the trip  had as much potential for fun and laughs as sitting down to do our taxes.

When we met up after the concert, he gave us a perfunctory hug before launching into his litany of complaints:  “I told you the concert would be obnoxiously long, didn’t I?  Sitting on those bleachers for three hours really killed my back!  Our hotel accommodations were awful – we were as far away from the door as you could get.  Had to start at least FIFTEEN minutes early just to get there on time!  And the food!  Don’t even get me started!  I didn’t know scrambled eggs and sausage could taste so bad!”

Instead of countering with a lecture on gratitude for having been able to experience such a weekend of singing with a premier choir, or delivering an explanation of the logistics of feeding, housing, and transporting a thousand high schoolers, or even reminding him that we hadn’t seen him in four days – we responded with empathy.

To his comments about the concert we replied, “Yeah, it was pretty long, wasn’t it?  The music was awesome, but it was a long time to sit.”

To the hotel complaint we replied, “That happened to us once.  We were at a youth conference, and our wing was so far out it seemed like we had to walk a MILE to get to the front.”

And when he was ranting about the food, we came back with, “Oh, that’s a shame.  You’d think that catered food would be really outstanding, not lousy.”

By the time we got to the car, all he wanted to do was get something to eat. But even his request for a restaurant was negative:  “Let’s go to Burger King; I’m in the mood for something greasy and salty and really unhealthy.”

After three Burger Shots he was ready to talk about the more pleasant events of the weekend.  You see, he’d really had an awesome time and already couldn’t wait to return next year – but before he could get to the good stuff, he’d had to work through his exhaustion and general grumpiness.

Had we given in to our parental instincts to interrupt his raving with lectures, we’d have found ourselves with a sullen, defensive passenger on the trip home.  But because he’d had a chance to vent – AND to feel like he’d been heard and understood – he was actually quite pleasant company.  (Okay, he slept most the way home, but still. . .!)

Empathy works – you just have to practice so it becomes second nature.

Riding Out the Storm

Ever feel like the teen in your house has multiple personalities?   Once puberty hits, teens (and preteens) can go from giddy to despondent to furious to serene – all in the space of an hour or less.  We know hormones are partly to blame, but brain development and growth spurts also play a part.

Just a few years ago, my sons were ages 17, 15, and 13.  That year I also had 30 8th graders in my class, and 30 more across the hall.  I’ll do the math for you:  that’s 63 moody teens that I had to face almost every day.  Empathy certainly was helpful (see “E is for Empathy,” posted 1/28/10), but it was also important not to get sucked in.

Here’s the problem:  as parents, we’ve devoted our lives to our children’s comfort and happiness from the day of their birth.  It’s a hard habit to break, so when your adolescent is upset, you want to DO something about it.

Imagine your daughter arriving home in tears, wailing about how she and her former best friend had a fight, and her former friend said some mean things.  She heads off to her room to change her clothes, and you begin to seethe about how awful her friend’s behavior was.  About the time you’re ready to pick up the phone and call her mother, your daughter comes out of her room.  You announce your intention, and she is aghast.  “Geez, Mom, I don’t know why have to go off like that!  I just texted her, and we both said we were sorry, and now she’s coming over in a little while so we can work on our science project.  Can she spend the night?”

“Y-y-es, I guess so,” you stammer, as you try to figure out what just happened.  Your daughter happily heads off to the kitchen while you figure out what to do with your frustration over what has turned out to be a non-issue.

Certainly you need to get involved in serious issues, like bullying or unfairness at school.  But in many cases, all you need to do is to remain calm – to be the anchor in the storm of adolescent emotions.  Don’t spend too much time analyzing the cause, nor dwell too long on solving the problem (your help might be unwelcome anyway).  Instead, practice empathy, remain interested but neutral, and ride out this mood.

Then brace for the next one!

E is for Empathy

It’s a typical evening in a typical house with a typical teen.  Mom asks, as she usually does, “Do you have any homework tonight?”  She’s immediately blasted with, “YES, I have homework!!  That stupid Mrs. Meanteacher gave us like a HUNDRED questions in history, and they’re all due tomorrow!  I hate her!  She’s the meanest teacher in the whole school!  Man, school SUCKS!  Why do I have to go?  I think I just want to quit school and get a job!”  How do you imagine Mom responds?  How would YOU respond?

If I could only share one thing about dealing with teens (or even with grown-ups, for that matter), it would be to learn to use empathy.  Unfortunately, too many times we parents get caught up in thinking we need to turn every incident into a learning opportunity.  Consequently, we would counter the above outburst with an item off of our Menu of Daily Lectures:  1) Respect Your Teacher, or 2) School Is a Privilege, or 3) Watch Your Language, or 4) You Can’t Get a Job Without a Diploma, or 5) The Combo Special  – All of the above, with a side dish of And When You Get Your Homework Done You Need To Do The Dishes.

When faced with an emotional teen, your best tool/weapon/friend is simply an answer slathered in empathy.  To the above outburst you might respond, “Oh, that’s so frustrating, to have that much homework in one night!”  End of response.  Don’t offer suggestions, don’t complain about the language (unless it’s truly profane – we’ll deal with disrespect another time), don’t point out the obvious (that getting started NOW might be a good idea) –  just use empathy.  Figure out the feelings behind the outburst and just show that you understand.  It’s a basic emotional need, to be understood.

If your empathetic response leads to another outburst – “No kidding!  And I still have a math test to study for AND  a stupid paper to write!”  Just answer with more empathy:  “Wow!  That does sound like a lot!”  This is harder than it sounds, because your first instincts are often to try to get your teen to calm down, or to try and come up with a solution to the problem.  But try empathy a few times, and you just might be surprised at the results.  In the best-case scenario, you’ll get a calmer teen who’s now able to be more realistic and to come up with a game plan to deal with the problem.  Best of all, you might just be seen as a parent who actually understands.

(For more info on parenting with empathy, check out loveandlogic.com or the book Parenting With Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline.  It’s powerful stuff!)