By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
When my daughter tried to talk to me about her problems, I handled it all wrong. I tried to offer solutions.
What’s worse? I told her stories from my own teen struggles thinking she could learn from them— or at least understand that though she was having a hard time, it wasn’t the end of the world.
It didn’t help. It just made her shut down. She felt disregarded.
Parent and Teenager Communication
I thought I was empathizing, relating, and being helpful. She didn’t see it that way.
“I’m not you, Mom,” she’d tell me.
“That doesn’t work for me, Mom,” she’d say.
“Listen to me, Mom.”
What I should have been doing all along was validating her experiences. The teen years are tricky pivotal times. Teens still need our help—of course they do—but they also need room to figure things out for themselves.
Julie M. Bemerer, PsyD, Staff Psychologist II at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, explains my approach is not uncommon. She says, “As parents, we want our kids to be happy and healthy. We want to fix what’s wrong.”
But at this stage of development, what parents really should do is “let them lead.”
The big developmental objective in the teen years is to “set them up to be successful adults,” says Dr. Bemerer, and in order to do that we have to understand that their judgments and decisions will be based on their own experiences. The best thing parents can do is help kids feel validated in the process.
What Validation Looks Like
Validation looks a lot like grownups biting their tongues. That sounds harsh but it’s true. Cyndy Etler, teacher turned teen life coach and bestselling YA Author says, “what teens crave the most is feeling authentically heard.”
Dr. Bemerer agrees. She suggests parents try what’s called “reflective listening.” This means to repeat what a person says back to them while reflecting their mood. For example, when your kid comes home from school and says, “I am so stressed about this test!” The parent needs to fight the urge to ask, “Did you study?” which sounds like an accusation.
Instead, simply repeat it back them. “So, this test is stressing you out, huh?”
More than likely your child will keep talking and say something like, “Yeah, I’ve been studying for four days, and I just can’t get this one part right.” You’ll get your questions answered when you give them the space to keep talking, and they will feel validated.
Dr. Bemerer says, “Reflective and active listening are tools therapists use because it’s a way to get people talking without adding our own biases into the conversation.” If parents do this when communicating with their teens, it keeps the conversation going and they feel heard and understood while still getting to figure something out on their own.
Dr. Bemerer continues, “When kids are young, we are their problem solvers. As they grow, it’s hard to take yourself out of that role.” For many, it is difficult to give it up because we know that teenagers don’t always make the best decisions. But here’s the thing: they’ll never make good decisions if we don’t let them practice while they’re still at home where it’s safe to make mistakes.
Check Your Fear
If you can establish this foundation of trusted listening with your teen, then it will help your communication when it comes to some of the bigger topics like depression, anxiety, and sexuality.
It can be scary, especially when it comes to disclosures about something that’s not familiar for parents. If it’s not similar to their own experience, parents can feel lost.
When a parent tries to minimize a disclosure by saying something like, “Oh, it’s just a phase,” it trivializes their teen’s pain. What the parent may not realize is they are really trying to manage their own fear. Fear of their child being hurt or judged. In these cases, Dr. Bemerer says, “Reflective listening is perfect because you don’t need to know what to do.” When you repeat what they say back to them, it helps your brain process your teen’s disclosure without accidentally dismissing what they’re communicating.
When it comes to offering input or sharing personal stories, don’t assume your teen wants to hear them. Etler suggests, “If you think it will help them, put it out there as an option so they can hear it if they want.” She is also quick to add, “but don’t make it the only option or the last option you list.” Otherwise the teen may feel obligated. Say something like, “I went through something similar that I’m willing to share but I totally understand if you just need to decompress with a bowl of popcorn and some YouTube right now. And of course, if you want to keep talking it through, I’ll listen and help however I can.” Make it their choice.
Remember, as a parent of a teen, the goal is not to necessarily to fix anything, but to support your teen through their own decision-making process. The goal is to send them out into the world better equipped.
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer and the director of Media, National Society of Newspaper Columnists