Updated: Mar 30, 2021
What QUESTIONS are you asking your teen? Think back to how much we messed up during our teen years for a moment. Don't you remember feeling like you were being Interrogated? Your tone, body language, demeanor, and volume ALL matter when you are talking to your teen.
How you talk to your teen is important, but WHAT you ask may matter MORE.
For example, Instead of asking a question like "WHAT were you thinking...." A BETTER question Is: Help me understand why this happened...
It assumes a non-offensive posture and OPENS the conversation rather than making an accusation of guilt. One puts them defending while the other says: we both know a mistake was made but I want to understand WHY that decision was made more than I want you to feel guilty about It. If you DO want them to feel guilty, ask yourself "why." Why is making them feel bad more important than helping THEM to understand how they got there In the first place? This can help our students to understand that we want THEM to make better decisions In the future, especially as they understand what priorities they are choosing to make their decisions.
So what alternatives do we have? Between their irritability, confusion, indifference, and tantrums, they can become pretty tough to handle human beings. You discover that your “perfect child” who has never even raised his voice may now at times be shouting at you or giving you the silent treatment. Of course, there will be good times too, but the bad moods may seem more prevalent.
I believe that so many of the actions that we pursue as parents are to ensure that we are teaching JUSTICE, we want to make sure that they take responsibility for their actions and NOT get away with what we have perceived as injustice, i.e. "why have you been ignoring my texts?" "Why did you sneak out of the house?" "Why did you send those pictures?"
These are ALL great questions, but don't help the teen to understand what they may not even REALIZE themselves. The young teen who sends partially clothed photos is "in love" with the boy that she just met a couple weeks ago, but has no idea that the reason she was willing to send photos is because for the first time, someone was interested in her (for the wrong reasons but interested never the less). The more important question might be to try and understand not WHO she's been sending them to, but "why she feels the need."
Helping instead for her to understand that she is WORTH CHERISHING and worth waiting for; MOST teens never hear those words from a parent but can help change their expectations about what truly matters.
We have to REMIND ourselves that their brains aren't done forming yet and many of the cause and effect connections that we are able to make as adults don't compute for them.
We want to communicate in a way that says: "I love you, so I am asking..." instead of feeling like they are on trial. This keeps the conversation as a parent who wants to "understand" instead of a trial attorney who is ready to prosecute and pass judgement.
For instance, when you find yourself in the middle of a negative question you may need to take a moment and try again with a positive question. For example: Imagine you find your teenager playing Call of Duty online with his buddies when he was supposed to be finishing homework. What we typically say is, “what are you doing? Weren’t you supposed to be finishing your homework?”
Whenever you catch yourself being judgmental, stop! Say something more positive, like “Sorry, let me rephrase that… we agreed that you were going to finish your homework. Please turn that off. Would you like 2 minutes to say goodbye to your friends and exit?” There is a lot to be gained when we are honest about our own impatience and our desire to seek their good instead of our own justice.
Also, questions beginning with “why” often communicate judgment. When we ask, “why did you do that?” the conversation isn’t very inviting and we shouldn't be surprised when they say: "I don't know why..."
Teenagers make some messed up and embarrassing choices. It’s easy to ask judgmental questions and lecture our children. However, judgments and lectures rarely inspire someone to get better. A better way to encourage and equip our teenagers toward maturity is to invite them into safe and interesting conversations.
Stopping and listening is the next important part in asking the right questions. After all, if you don't listen to their response without getting negative or combative, they will be less likely to open up next time. It will likely take a while for your teenager to open up if you are just beginning to practice using better questions. But as they begin to realize you are really listening, interested and safe, you may be surprised by what you learn.
Great Resource for understanding the Teenage Brain:
The Primal Teen, by Barbara Strauch
NPR article on the Teen Brain