Talking to teens

Four strategies for keeping the lines open

Chloe Garrett* was a good student and an elite swimmer who trained year-round for her school and community teams in Ottawa. Her mom, Catherine, took her to all the practices and meets, and they had a close, happy relationship. Then Chloe turned 13. She dropped her swimming commitments one by one and, by grade nine, was tight with a group of five new friends whose favourite sports were shopping and makeup. “All of a sudden I never saw her, or if I did see her, she was on the phone or computer with her friends,” says Catherine. “She was constantly pressuring me for money to buy clothes.” Chloe started challenging her parents’ authority at every turn. “Chloe questioned all my decisions — she wanted input into everything. And she became very manipulative to get what she wanted. I felt I had lost my daughter.”

Not every child morphs into a surly, defiant teenager, of course, but any parent facing the teen years will recognize something in Catherine’s story. They may see their once loving 10- and 11-year-olds becoming lippy, dropping their former interests and retreating behind a screen of cellphones, iPods and computers. Their peers become all-important, leaving parents to wonder, “Who is this person, and will I ever get my child back?”

Frustrating teen behaviour is part of normal maturation, a move toward independent thought and action — but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Here are some ideas to help you communicate more effectively with your teen.

*Names changed by request.

Understand that it’s all in their head

Some parents joke that their teens have been abducted by aliens and returned with different brains. In some ways, they aren’t far wrong. As early as age 11, children start to experience profound changes in their bodies and, more importantly, in their brains. A teenager’s perception of the world is changing from black and white to shades of grey. The child who may have accepted whatever he was told begins to think like an adult who is able to consider different possibilities. “Now they are challenging authority because they need to know the why of things,” explains Ron Clavier, a Toronto psychologist and author of Teen Brain, Teen Mind. “Before, things were fixed and set. Now they don’t know what’s right for them socially, morally, ethically, politically or as regards their family.” The resulting insecurity is unsettling even though it’s a healthy consequence of normal brain development.

Getting comfortable with these new thought processes can be overwhelming for a teen, Clavier says. Think of your first time using a computer or driving a car. It takes practice and usually progresses in baby steps. Furthermore, the teen brain is a work-in-progress: The frontal lobes of the cortex, which help with impulse control, are not yet mature. Teens don’t completely grasp the concept of future time, and can’t always think ahead to the consequences of their actions. They live very much in the now, which can sometimes lead to risky behaviour.

Make time together — naturally

Evelyne Duchamps* of Montreal became concerned when her daughter Chantal stopped coming home after school. “I’d be phoning around trying to find out where she was. She became secretive. It was scary.” Duchamps also discovered that Chantal was cutting herself. Chantal agreed to go into therapy, and her mom started picking her up from school every day. On those drives home, Chantal slowly began to open up about what was happening in her life. “We had the best conversations when she was safe in the car,” Duchamps recalls. “I liked chauffeuring her friends too, because I could eavesdrop.”

Duchamps did several things right. For one, she made sure that she spent time with Chantal every day. She chose the car, but it could also be time spent walking the dog or having breakfast together — the important thing is that the teen knows she can count on that special time. As much as they push their parents away, teens need solid family bonds to help them negotiate the turbulent adolescent years and to protect them from negative influences and unsafe choices.

Aren van Delden, a counsellor with Kids Help Phone, suggests that parents and teens do chores together as regu-larly as possible: make dinner, work in the yard, wash dishes. “It’s an opportunity to say, ‘You look a bit down. How was your day? You know you can come to me for anything.’” Duchamps adds: “Don’t expect them to tell you anything at a specific time; leave the space for conversations to happen.” You may feel like jumping in with comments, but it’s better to focus on listening.

*Names changed by request.

Tackle the tough questions

Teens sometimes ask questions that can give you a keen insight into their lives — not to mention a chance to influence them. When your son asks a question like “What would you do if you knew that somebody stole something and another person got in trouble for it?” he’s asking for your help. Avoid the temptation to take over, says van Delden. Ask him what he thinks; it may take a few questions to get him there. And try not to let your own anxiety (“Could he be involved in something over his head?”) get the better of you. Then offer your reasoned opinion calmly and in as few words as possible. Situations like these can allow you to offer good advice on ethics and morality.

Sometimes kids come to you with tough questions about the state of the world: “Why did your generation create so much pollution?” or “Why are our soldiers killing civilians in another country?” You owe them a thoughtful answer. If you don’t have one, be honest and say so. As Clavier points out, if you mumble a platitude or deflect their questions, teens may become cynical and turn somewhere else for answers — and it might not be a source you’re comfortable with. “Encourage your child to ask questions, to critically challenge you,” Clavier says. If you shut down questions, you may force your teen into silent withdrawal.

When it comes to more practical questions such as “Why do I have to be in bed by 10 every night?” think flexibility and negotiation. You can set rules for homework, curfews and computer time, but take your teen’s input seriously. If she plays a role in determining the rules, she’ll be more likely to follow them.

Withhold your judgment

Sometimes good kids do stupid things. Answering the door to find a police officer with your teenage son in tow is a gut-wrenching experience a parent will likely never forget. But how you react can make or break your relationship with your teen, says van Delden. She recalls counselling a boy who was caught stealing. “He realized he had done something really dumb, and he didn’t expect his father to think it was OK. But the insults were too much — from ‘You won’t amount to anything, you loser’ to ‘I knew you’d let me down.’” In that moment, says van Delden, the boy felt his relationship with his father disintegrate.

Hurtful words can shut down your teen faster than a cold shower. If you’ve blurted something in anger — even if she started the fight — the next step should be yours. All you have to say is “If I said something that hurt you, I’m sorry.” If you’ve lost it or are about to, adds van Delden, “just excuse yourself and say you’re going to go cool off. The same issue will still be there when you return, and you’ll be better able to address it.”

In such a situation, the key is staying calm and reserving judgment. Teens get enough judgment from our culture at large. Evelyne Duchamps saw it happen to her daughter, Chantal, who has brightly dyed hair. “One night my daughter took a friend home in a taxi after he’d had too much to drink. The friend’s mother blamed Chantal and accused her of giving her son drugs, just because she looked different.”

Withholding judgment doesn’t mean you have to ignore your own emotions — it’s OK to be frustrated by your teen’s behaviour. But that doesn’t have to descend into condemnation. Adds van Delden: “Of course, you don’t like the behaviour, but you are always there to support your child.”