Communicating with Your Teen (or with anyone!)

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“What is your problem anyway?” is a question we often ask our teenagers in exasperation. And it is a very good question. Too bad we leave it till the end of a conversation as we leave the room in anger. Because when we are parenting children and teens it is crucial that we find out the answer to that question. And often the problem is not the problem. And that is a problem. Anyone confused yet? George Bernard Shaw once said that the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has happened.
Here is how it works. Sometimes we think that our child or youth is telling us about their problem when what they are actually telling us about is their solution. For example, the teenager who is screaming “I need a ride to the mall” is NOT describing their real problem. They are telling us what they think will solve their problem. They are frustrated with us when we say no, and they feel that we don’t understand and are not helping them. They may take it one step further and try to manipulate or agitate us into providing them with their chosen solution. This can sometimes escalate into a full-on temper tantrum and even violence. But the reality is, they have not told us about their real problem. They have only told us about the one solution that they have decided will solve that problem.
So what is the “real” problem? Finding this out requires your best investigative skills, your best communication skills and a fair bit of patience. Step 1 is listening carefully and telling the child or teen what you are hearing them say. It feels good to know you are being heard. Step 2 is noticing the feelings that they are expressing and validating those feelings. It feels good to know that it is okay to have big feelings. Both of these steps pave the way to finding out what the real problem is, and we can’t get to the third step without them. Step 3 is where our investigative skills come in – it is about being curious, asking questions, and finding out what the real problem is so that we can help our child generate a viable solution.
Easy peasy? Not so much. Because when we don’t have time or energy, or when we are upset by our child’s emotion, the default response to their demands is to do just the opposite. We form an argument in our mind about what they are saying instead of listening to them. We tell them that it is ridiculous to get that upset about something so small, we pass judgement about what they think, and we give advice and lecture about what we think. And so we never get to what the real problem is. We have all been there and done that.
“I need a ride to the mall” may mean, “I just spread some nasty gossip about my best friend and I have to see him or her in order to make it right”. It could also mean, “I am feeling so terrible about what happened today at school that I need to get high so I can forget about it.” Two very different problems, but both so important to talk about and understand. Empathy, validation, and curiosity will get to the root of it and allow you to help your child through their worst problems.