Working with teenagers is great. One day, we are discussing their struggles in class or playing time on their sports team. Other days it’s how their parents are mad at them for smoking weed, vaping, playing too much Fortnite, or not putting enough energy into school work. As parents, I’m sure being a little more like Buddha in how we communicate with our kids could have great payoffs.
The way we communicate with a 5-year-old is much different than that of a 12-year-old. While this may not be up for debate, many parents get the urge to “amp up” the pressure once high-school starts. In sessions, kids tell me their parents are constantly telling them, “this is when it really starts to count”, “you need to really buckle down on studying and apply yourself”, “colleges will see this”, and “you really need to set yourself apart from others”.
To simplify things, there are two types of pressure when it comes to kids. “Actual pressure” is expressed through more overt actions like telling your child that they need to get particular grades in school or telling them they need to participate in a certain activity even if they don’t enjoy it. “Perceived pressure” is when a kid sees their successful parent and feels the need follow in their footsteps, regardless of what you may be telling them.
Inherently, the pressure is neither good or bad, but how we communicate our messages can be the defining factors. There is a teaching in Buddhism known as, “The Four Elements of Right Speech”. Using them as a guideline to communicate with your teen or young adult can help you shift from a place of defensiveness and anger to a place of patience and understanding.
The Four Elements of Right Speech:
1. Tell the truth. Don’t lie or turn the truth upside down.
I’ve found in my practice that parents tend to either lean towards being the, “I’m going to lay it all out there and tell it straight up” type of truth-telling parent or the, “I don’t want to hurt them so I’ll either minimize it or not mention anything at all” type of parent.
Communicating the truth to your kid can frequently be seen as conflict and that will immediately make a person go into “conflict mode” (have your own conflict mode assessment done by YouTime Coaching here). Telling the truth is crucial but doing so in a skillful and compassionate way is paramount. Check yourself before communicating the truth to your kid and make sure you are doing so in a way that doesn’t make your kid feel threatened, so they can have the ability to listen.
2. Don’t exaggerate.
Kids always seem to be slipping up and making mistakes. Sometimes (yes, even you!), the mistake is made into some much more worse than it actually may be. When parents do this they are typically trying to justify their own anger.
Exaggerating mistakes paints a very specific image for your kid to see themselves through. In many cases, it can affect their self-image. Like with many aspects of parenting, the impact may be unintentional but it can quickly affect trust within the relationship (on both sides). Again, check yourself and your own emotions before communicating with your kid.
3. Be consistent.
“You did it when you were my age!”
Parents LOVE telling their teenagers what they can’t do. “You are not allowed to drink, smoke weed, and you need to do well in school”. Those same parents typically can turn around and reminisce with their significant other about the times they went to parties in high-school or got in trouble for staying out too late. The things you did at their age are not an open invitation for them to participate but it is a point of reference you need to consider in order to handle the situation.
“You let (insert brother or sister’s name) do it!”
Teenagers and young adults love making comparisons and while treating each child the same is literally impossible keeping some consistency between siblings is important. Sometimes this may come down to communication and explaining why certain siblings get different treatment. Just keep in mind that having a base of “this goes for everyone”, is very important for parents.
For teens, the inconsistencies are typically seen as a conflict. It creates a division between parents and kids. Be consistent in how you communicate your concerns and praises.
4. Use “smart” language.
Take two seconds and think about how your parents spoke to you when you were a teenager. What ways made you angry, sad, or happy? It is pretty crazy how quickly we forget this when communicating to your own child. “Smart” language functions through choosing the words and a tone that will help your kid stay open to discussion rather than being argumentative and going into shut down mode. “Smart” language means not using insulting, cruel, abusive, or condemning words when speaking with your kid.
Again, remind yourself that most (not all) of the issues you are dealing with as parents are situations that need to be managed and not problems that can be just solved. Choose your actual words wisely.
Teens are typically self-critical with rampant negative self-talk. The communicate tips above will help prevent you, as a parent, from layering on more criticism and judgment which usually puts your kid in a state that is not efficient for any type of productivity. Keep in mind that you still model to your child how to handle emotions. Remember that the first to yell loses the fight and that these strategies are used to support your child in their own self-improvement.