Archive for August, 2009

00 keys5I work as a school counsellor and one of the most common questions I am asked by parents of teenagers is: “How do I get them to talk to me?” 

 I’ve lost count how many mothers of sons have said to me, “All he says is, ‘I dunno.’”  The evasiveness of boys, I reckon, is an art form.  Granted, it is highly annoying, but the skill with which they dodge engagement with their poor, wistful mums is a thing to behold.  If only they could devote this tactic to good and not evil!

 Then there are the girls—the ones who spend the whole school day giggling with their girlfriends, only to return home and shrug at their mother’s attempts at communication.  They can’t seem to form a complete sentence (that isn’t punctuated with eye rolling) to their parents, but they can spend the entire evening in deep and meaningful conversations (via text or MSN) with their friends. What is happening here? 

 Two things: individuation and brain development.

 The disengagement of young people from their parents is a normal part of growing up.  Pulling away from parents and reinvesting energy into friendships is part of the process called individuation.  The teen’s drive for independence is normal and it’s to be expected.  However, despite what psychologists might tout as normal, it is not ideal.

 Rather than achieving independence, becoming interdependent is the ideal outcome.  Interdependence allows for individuation, the separation of the child from the parent, but it encourages a healthy consultation with parents.  In other words, they separate from their parents and the relationship remains in tact and healthy. 

 As much as adolescents crave and seek after freedom, they require input from trustworthy sources.  Parents need to find a way to engage with their teen without hindering their thrust for independence.  Why?  Because their kids need more, not less, input.

 Kids require more parental input because of their brain development.  Previous understanding of brain development believed the brain was fully intact at age 4; however, recent findings by neurologists have shown that the human brain continues developing all the way to 20 years of age or more.  Scientists now understand that this growth and development of the brain from age 15 to 21 is crucial. 

 The frontal lobes, which are responsible for planning, forethought, impulse control and delay of gratification, decrease in bulk during these years. This development is described as “pruning.”  In other words the brain is paring down in the short-term to make it more efficient in the long-run. While the frontal lobes are under reconstruction, the limbic system, responsible for emotional processing, is dominant.  Unfortunately, the two brain centres do not communicate particularly well, which explains some of the erratic, bewildering adolescent behaviour that some of them engage in.

 Take risky behaviour, such as reckless driving, fighting and other forms of thrill-seeking. Scientists believe that this neural pruning in the frontal lobes may be partly responsible for some adolescents’ tendency towards risk-taking behaviour.  Due to the fact that there are fewer neurons firing in their frontal lobes and their brain’s emotional centre is raging, their judgement can be fairly poor.  Rather than requiring less guidance from parents at this stage of life, they actually require more.

 How parents provide that guidance is the crucial factor.  Lecturing is a no-no. (Think back to your own adolescence and listening to your father drone on and on.  If that doesn’t convince you not to lecture, note your teen’s amazing ability to tune out!  They are like crocodiles, equipped with an eye-glazing apparatus.)

 A more productive approach is to ask questions to draw out the wisdom you’ve instilled over the years.  One key is to listen without judging or interrupting.  Another is to reflect the emotional content of what they say or do and summarize.  This indicates that you are really listening, which they believe you to be incapable of.

 How DO you open an adolescent?  With love and respect, and heaps of patience.

Ten Tips for Talking to Your Teen  

  1. Do NOT lecture.
  2. Timing is important: do not try to engage while emotions (theirs or yours) are raging.
  3. Ask questions (open ended ones, not Yes-No questions)
  4. Adopt a neutral, “curious” tone. (Not suspicious, not snooping, not judgemental)
  5. Focus on emotional responses, as well as content.  Notice or imagine aloud how they might feel about something. “That must be frustrating for you.”
  6. No interrupting.
  7. Give your full attention.
  8. Keep trying, even if all of the above tips haven’t worked yet.
  9. Allow them the possibility of withdrawal or silence without taking it personally.  “You seem to need some space.  That’s fine.  I’m here when you’re ready.”  This kind of respect earns you big points with teens.
  10. Do NOT lecture. 

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