Teen Talk

Is “Teenage” Another Language?

There are common themes prevalent in all youngsters during the teenage years. Whether a teenager is simply having a bad day or has a diagnosed disorder, teens seem to exhibit the same behavioral characteristics of mood swings, inconsistent or non-existent communication with parents and generally behavior that is confusing for child and parent alike.

In some ways this all stems from the fact that almost all teenagers have similar desires, wants and needs. According to Allison Tables, a Life Coach and licensed school counselor for the Spire School as well as a Licensed Professional Counselor, teens tend to simply want to be heard, connect, have a purpose and feel a sense of belonging. Adults, particularly parents, find that connecting and talking to teens is often a difficult endeavor. Why? Don’t we all speak the same language? Actually, no! Just ask any parent who tries to get an answer from a teenager.

“I Don’t Know”

How many times has a question to your teen received this response? While the canned response or one word answer can be frustrating, Tables suggests, “It is important to pay attention to the feeling your teen is currently having rather than the lack of answer to your question. Even though your teen may not say a word, his/her body language speaks loud and clear.”

For example, Tables explains that “if your teen is tensing up, seeming frustrated, or shutting down, it often is because he/she thinks that you don’t get it.” According to Tables, teens actually often want adults to “get it” and are looking to connect. What’s the obstacle then? Tables states, “the language in which teens connect is not always the same language you as a parent may be speaking.”

Stop Gap

How do parents break that language barrier? Tables suggests “teens are more likely to open up when they do not feel “interrogated.” When you see your teen “shutting down,” Tables encourages “parallel activities.” She explains, “when the focus is off of him/her and it’s more about the two of you, the kid is more likely to talk. Examples include: going for walks, cooking meals together, going out for meals/coffee once and while. Your teenager wants you to care, but often will never admit it out loud.”

Look For Opportunities

Another approach in communicating about difficult topics is to look for opportunities when listening to your teen talk. For example, suggests Tables, “if your teen brings something up about another friend using drugs, having sex or drinking, etc.,” use it as an opportunity to ask questions about your teen’s reaction or thoughts over the friend’s behavior. An alternate way, suggests Tables, is to “encourage your teen to have friends over and then, pay attention to what they talk about. Your teen may not tell you directly about what is going on, but listening and observation provide a great opportunity.”

Gender and Age

While there are many overlapping techniques for connecting to teen boys and girls, there generally is a difference in reception. Tables states, “girls are more forthcoming in general while boys can be awkward and shut down when they are asked questions about how they feel about certain things.”  Tables finds that “boys open up best when they are doing other activities while talking, such as playing basketball with their dad, going for a run, playing music, drawing, etc.”

In terms of age, it is important for the parent to be conscious of speaking their child’s individual “language” as well as “being mindful of where the child is developmentally and making sure you don’t talk about a topic that they’re not quite ready for or, conversely, try to discuss a topic that is too immature for them. If either of these take place, the child will most likely shut down.”

Drinking, Drugs & Sex

It is hard enough to talk about homework or what to cook for dinner, so how should a parent broach difficult or sensitive topics? Tables advises parents to try to normalize the potential uncomfortableness. “I think it is important, as a parent, to not be scared to bring up these issues. The more normal you are about it, the more normal the kid will feel about talking about it. I think many parents just avoid talking about these types of issues altogether. Your teen wants to hear from you about this stuff, even though he/she doesn’t always show it. Many teenagers are very confused about what actually happens sexually and are relieved when someone actually talks to them about it in a normal, healthy, informative way.”

Landmines

Sounds easy? There are still traps or errors that parents need to work at avoiding. As parents, we want to protect our children and we want them to like us. Sometimes, attempts can go too far. Tables explains “parents often fall into the trap of blurring boundaries either because they want their child to like them, because they feel sorry for their child for one reason or another, they feel guilty they don’t see them enough, or they no longer have the energy to fight them.”

Teens, like animals, can “sniff out” real and genuine versus fake. Be honest, but appropriate. When adolescents realize that you too are a person who had struggles like them, they often feel relieved. It is important though, to be careful not to over-share. “I think all teenagers, no matter what age, want their parents to be real with them. They can sense authenticity immediately. They have amazing ’phony’ radars. The last thing you want to do is be dishonest or fake.”

Don’t Give Up!

How often as parents have we thrown our hands up in the air and simply given up? “When parents relinquish control (either consciously or subconsciously), the child is confused,” states Tables. “Although the teen will fight tooth and nail to have more freedom, in reality, the adolescent still wants to be the child and wants his/her mom and dad to be the parent. When a teen has too much control, he/she doesn’t know what to do with it.” As a result, a teen’s confusion can lead to a number issues. For example, Tables has seen confused feelings “exacerbate anxiety, depression and cause the teen to act out.”

Consisitency Matters

Just as teens look for loopholes, they also like to play parents. A united front is important, and, according to Tables, “consistency is huge.” She explains, “teens jump at the tiniest hole in a story and run with it. They will always side with the parent that helps them get what they want. Also, like I said earlier about blurred boundaries, blurred messages also confuse the teen. Clear expectations and boundaries, within a nurturing supportive framework I think works best.”

If you suspect your teen is struggling, but is not willing to talk with his or her parents, counselors that work with this age group can offer a teen group or 1:1 support, where your teen can share, realize their concerns are not unique, and work out problems in a safe, supportive environment. Contact the Collaborative Group for Learning and Development at Greenwich Education Group at 203-409-0069 for more information. To contact Allison Tables directly email her at  atables@greenwichedgroup.com or call 203-661-1609 ext. 222.