Attempting a conversation with your teenage son or daughter can be like pulling teeth. You twist and pull and prod, with nothing to show for it except for a few mumbled words and growing feeling of frustration. While it may seem far-fetched to imagine your teen opening up to you, teens really do want to talk with their parents. Behind those monosyllabic teen responses, there is a surplus of thoughts and feelings and words just waiting to spill out. Often, because they don’t know how to say it — or maybe they feel like they can’t say it — kids keep their lips tightly sealed shut.
The trick to getting your teen to open up and talk is to ask the right questions. And in counseling with over 2500 different teenagers, I have discovered one question in particular that always helps to get the ball rolling. The question is this: “What’s one thing you’d like to tell me that you think I should know?” It’s amazing how the floodgates of communication fly open when they sense that it’s safe to share. But be ready! You may be surprised by what you hear. To give you an idea of the kinds of things teenagers wish their parents knew about them, here are some common responses I’ve gotten over the years.
#1: “I don’t think any more about being immodest than being modest.”
The young lady who told me this had experienced many battles with her parents over clothes and attitudes. Her parents often looked at her wardrobe options and were concerned that their daughter was trying to attract undesirable attention, or to look seductive. But in this teen’s mind, she wasn’t even thinking about dressing provocatively or acting inappropriately. All she wanted was to fit in with the other kids around her!
The problem lies in a culture obsessed with the sensual. Media influences are pressuring girls to dress and act more provocatively than ever before. Of course, dads want their little girls to dress in overalls and cardigans, but for a young lady trying to fit in at school, with friends, or with the rest of the world in general, she’ll try to dress and act like what she hears and sees. What teen girls wish their parents knew was that many times their clothing choices have nothing to do with a desire to be immodest. She just wants to avoid standing out and being ridiculed.
So the next time your daughter shows up ready for school wearing clothes that raise eyebrows, don’t jump to conclusions. Spend time explaining the reasons you’re uncomfortable with that type of fashion, what others might interpret through her clothing choices, and suggest alternatives. Also, in battles over clothes and expression, take a step back and ask yourself if this is a hill worth dying on. If your son goes to school with hot green shoes and purple laces, or your daughter puts on shirt with only one sleeve, consider whether it’s worth the fight. If it’s more weird than immodest, let your kids have the freedom to make the clothing choices that their kids will mock them for later!
#2: “I wish my parents knew their definition of abnormal is our definition of normal.”
Confused by teen culture? You’re not alone! Society has changed, and is changing on consistent basis, and some of the definitions of normal teen behavior have been altered. David Kinnamen, President of the Barna Research group, explains this shift with an insightful analogy. He compares our culture to Babylon. As Christians, we often feel like we’re in exile, living in a foreign land whose ideas and philosophies are radically different from our own. We want our children to be faithful in this generation. But like the Israelites who lived in Babylon, some of the customs have to change and evolve.
Faithfulness is important, but living in this culture may take a different faithfulness than what we expect. It’s important that we teach our children biblical definitions of what is right and what is wrong, but we also allow our teenagers to apply the biblical answers to this culture and society in their way. Teens wish their parents knew that they need space to be “abnormal”. Trust them to use the tools you’ve given them to make godly decisions in a changing culture.
#3: “Privacy isn’t always deception.”
As parents, we know the trouble teenagers can get into. So we monitor their computer, their phones, their room, and their car, and keep tabs on their activities. While I highly recommend moms and dads inspect Facebook pages and backpacks, I also endorse a healthy balance. As many teenagers say to me, “just because I want a little privacy doesn’t mean I’m looking for an opportunity to step out of line.” It’s healthy and normal for kids to want space to be alone with their thoughts and feelings. Let’s not monitor our kids so closely that we eliminate privacy.
#4: “I wish my parents knew how much I need them.”
I was floored when I heard this come out of the mouth of a struggling teenager! Maybe you don’t hear it from your child often (or at all), but be encouraged, mom and dad. Your kids need you. They want to hear your wisdom, feel your love and make you proud. Your teen knows they can’t navigate this world without you. No matter how hard it gets, understand that deep down, your child longs to tell you how much they care.
#5: “My acting out isn’t always about them. I’m hurting too!”
This statement came from a girl who was struggling to make sense of her mother’s death over two years ago. Her violent outbursts towards her father and stepmother, though harmful and wrong, were the result of dealing with pain she needed help processing. But it can be extremely tough not to take the actions of a wayward child personally. Even when kids lash out at us, many times the issue isn’t really about our parenting. The child is hurting and responding in an unhealthy way.
When you see your teen acting out, try to uncover what’s behind it. If you can address the pain behind the actions, you’ll have a better chance of reaching your child and solving the problem.
#6: “I wish my dad told me he loved me.”
I grew up knowing that my dad loved me, but I rarely heard him say it. And it left a big hole in my heart. I now tell parents, don’t let a single day go by without telling your kids (or spouse, for that matter) that you love them. Words have a powerful effect on people. Your verbal affirmation can give your family confidence, security, and a sense of warmth that they can’t get anywhere else. Teens want to know that you care about them. We’ve always been told that actions speak louder than words, but that’s not always true. Sometimes saying “I love you” can speak to the heart of your child louder than any action or gift could. So when you finish reading this, go tell your wife, husband, son, or daughter that you love them!
I understand that communication with teenagers isn’t easy. When you talk with them, expect some dead space and awkward silences, but also be ready for real thoughts and feelings to be shared. Sure, it’s cliché, but it remains true — communication is key. A healthy relationship starts with talking and understanding each other. I encourage you ask your child, “What’s one thing you have always wanted to tell me?” Maybe your teen repeats one of the statements above. Or perhaps they open up to you with something brand new. It all starts with asking questions. Talking to them. Finding out what’s rattling around inside their heads. You never know — you might be pleasantly surprised with what you discover.
About the Author
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas. For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Go to www.heartlightministries.org. Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173. Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.