It can sometimes be difficult to talk to your teen, especially if answers to questions like “How was your day?” are met with such mysterious replies such as “Fine,” “OK” or “Alright,” but learning to communicate with our children, especially from a young age, can help promote maturity, help him or her make choices that support their well-being, help them avoid situations that might be dangerous and teach them how to look after themselves mentally as well as physically.
Preteens, tweens and teens are dealing with far greater and far more pressure than ever before. Challenging physical changes and ever more complex relationships (exacerbated by a pandemic) mean there’s never been a better time to talk and listen to what they’re thinking and feeling.
Family therapist Cory Pacheck, M.Ed., LMFT said that while the parental system is just one system that a child exists within (others include their biological system, family system, community system, etc.), it is very key because parents are the foundation of every child’s life.
“In attachment theory, we refer to the ideal version of that foundation as a ‘secure base,’” said Pacheck.
That foundation begins with parents who have their own lives together.
“Your credibility and your character matter,” he said. “You have to be trustworthy, honest, responsible, reliable and safe. You have to know what you are talking about and know how to shut up and listen a lot and then maintain confidentiality with what your child has just shared with you.”
Pacheck said parents have to be trustworthy in order to be trusted and resist the urge to get on a soapbox and go into lecture mode.
“Don’t invalidate their feelings by telling them they’re wrong or telling them all the reasons why they shouldn’t feel the way they do, because it’s one of the most common communication errors that parents make,” he said.
Kindergarten teachers tell their students to turn on their listening ears; parents also need their listening ears.
“Take the time to truly and deeply listen with genuine compassion and empathy, first seeking to understand and validate that person’s feelings and experience,” he said, “and resist the urge to start complaining about how terrible your own life is, thinking it will somehow make your child feel better.”
This will only shut them down because kids don’t want to know how irrelevant and small their own problems are and won’t want to burden their parents with them.
Pacheck’s next tip won’t make him any fans in the liquor store.
“Stop drinking,” he bluntly stated. “Your kids see you and how you act when you’re drinking and you lose credibility and respect as well as trust when they see you under the influence of alcohol and other substances.”
Instead, be responsible, safe, strong, reliable, level-headed and trustworthy. They’ll feel good about talking with their parents when they need to.
“Parents need to be a united front and well-functioning team,” he said. “Don’t yell and scream and undermine one another.”
Even under the best circumstances, especially so when their child is sharing, parents might sometimes need to reach out to a professional for help. Parents should talk to the student services team (a school counselor, school nurse, school social worker) at their teen’s school if they need assistance.
Parents can also talk to their child’s pediatrician or health care provider and describe the child’s behavior, as well as what they have observed and learned from talking with others, or they can ask their health care provider for a referral to a family therapist or licensed mental health provider who has experience and expertise in treating youth.
“You can also shop around and see who’s been helpful to others,” said Pacheck.
Going through a crisis that needs immediate attention? Call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 2-1-1 (available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), where intervention specialists provide immediate and confidential short-term crisis intervention and information and referrals to more than 3,000 human services available in Hillsborough County. Call 911 in an emergency.
At the end of the day, whether children or adults, having the skills necessary to communicate effectively and cope with life’s challenges is critically important.