By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
“Communicating with your Teen” was the topic of a presentation earlier this year hosted by the Vandegrift Parent Teacher Student Association Healthy Lifestyles committee, which focuses on student health and wellness.
The talk was lead by Shelley Coleman, committee member and licensed professional counselor. She spoke to an eager audience of parents and opened with a promise — and a caveat. “You are going to learn the secret (of communicating with your teen): there is no secret.”
Coleman first explained to parents what they could expect from their teens developmentally.
“Emotionally they are separating from us as parents. They’re beginning to distance themselves from us. Their friends are more important than we are,” she said.
Teens are also starting to think more abstractly, can engage in thinking about and planning for the future and are more open to other ideas.
This will sound familiar to any parent of a teen, as well as Coleman’s reminder that teens can also use their logic “as a weapon against us,” pointing out any perceived inconsistencies in parents’ logic.
Communication with parents “ebbs and flows,” emphasized Coleman, and a teen’s connection to their parents can vary day-by-day.
“Their frontal lobes aren’t developed until they’re 25. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.” So while teens may look intelligent and mature, she said, the part of the brain that can plan, reason and control impulses is not yet, in fact, developed.
And, she said, there is no difference in this process between boys and girls. It has more to do with the individual than with gender.
For what can seem like a minefield of emotions and conflict, Coleman offered parents a roadmap of tools to help navigate the terrain.
Coleman laid out the key components of healthy boundaries, including:
- Maintain empathy,
- Allow for natural consequences,
- Be firm and consistent,
- Know where you end and your teen begins,
- Have mutual respect,
- Don’t take it personally,
- Respect privacy.
Regarding natural consequences, she gave the example that if your student is in a fender bender, make them responsible for paying the deductible.
Clearly and consistently communicating and enforcing family rules can help to prevent a lot of conflict and anxiety before it starts. Creating predictability is important, which developing brains need to thrive.
Hardest of all, Coleman said, can be to not take things personally, reminding parents that, “Don’t take it personally is a lot easier,” when parents take care of themselves. Much like their kids, anxious or stressed parents will be more reactive to perceived slights or hints of conflict.
Respecting privacy can be more challenging than ever, especially in the cell phone age. “Are there reasons not to respect privacy?” asked Coleman. “Yes, if you feel like your kid’s doing anything dangerous or illegal or something that would harm them.”
Coleman reminded parents, too, that boundaries and rules can be adjusted to fit the child and circumstances and need not be hard and fast regardless of their efficacy. There are benefits for kids in seeing their parents model logical, flexible and still healthy boundaries.
For the most effective communication, Coleman encouraged parents to have an “open door” policy.
Communication, she explained, can come down to finding those little opportunities to talk, such as an early breakfast or in the car on the way to school. “It’s hard, but we’re creative because we’re parents.”
Once a teen starts talking, a parent’s response can encourage the open flow of communication rather than inadvertently shutting it down. In order to keep your teen talking, Coleman said:
- Stay calm,
- Be a good listener,
- Avoid the lecture,
- Be clear with rules and expectations,
- Know the difference between small stuff and big stuff.
She also encouraged parents to lean on other parenting resources, such as: like minded parents; school counselors, coaches, or teachers; a therapist or pediatrician; and online resources (being careful, of course, not to go down the Internet rabbit hole).
While conflict can be expected, as well as mood swings and experimental behaviour, Coleman said parents do need to be aware of differences in their kids’ emotional states and to be on the lookout for sustained swings away from the baseline, which may require professional intervention.
Communication can also break down down to the extent that a therapist or other resources may be needed. “You know when you’re not connected,” said Coleman, “versus we’re just having a rough patch.”
Parents in attendance at the brown bag lunch event engaged in a lively conversation, sharing their own struggles, solutions and many laughs. VHS head counselor Amy Rodriguez was also present and was able to share a more student-centric point of view.
Every parent at the event seemed to want to know the answer to one key question: does communication with our teens get better? To this Coleman was able to offer a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Sometime in college our kids start to realize, ‘Oh, my parents aren’t idiots. They do know some things,” Coleman said.
In the meantime, though, she reminded parents to do the best they can and to equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to have the best possible communication with their teens.
Sareta Heath, PTSA Healthy Lifestyles committee chair, said the presentation was a hit.
“It was wonderful to see parents interact with the speaker and other parents on how to communicate with their teens,” Heath said. “We could see how empowered the parents felt after the presentation.”
“We look forward to providing more speakers for topics such as teen sleep, technology and teens and performance anxiety in the classroom and on the field,” Heath added.