By Laura Reagan-Porras
These are perilous times for tweens. Tweens face numerous crises given the overwhelming high school dropout rates, child and adolescent obesity rates, substance abuse, bullying, teenage pregnancy rates and juvenile crime rates rising. A multitude of studies show that teens still view their parents as their primary role models. This fact comforts me, as a mother. It gives me hope that I can still exert influence. Over the years I have learned a few strategies that help my daughter and I communicate, despite our adolescent and menopausal mood swings, respectively. Three strategies, open ended questions, active listening and I-Messages have become a natural part of parenting for me.
Open ended questions can be a conversation starter – Open ended questions cannot be answered with a one word response like “yes” or “no.” Open ended questions invite more discussion. When I want to know what is going on with my daughter Grace I ask her an opened ended questions like these.
How is Amy (Grace’s best friend) doing?
Tell me what you like about social studies class?
Tell me what do you don’t like about your math class?
Active listening: Restatement of last word or phrase – When there is a natural pause in her conversation with me, I simply repeat the last few words of her last sentence. (It may feel mechanical at first but it shows your teen that you are really listening and want to hear more.)
Re-state or rephrase again to check meaning. Don’t assume understanding. Check it out. This step requires a little bravery because I risk rejection and if she is particularly hormonal or in a rebellious or angry mood, it can hurt. Being willing to check out my interpretation with Grace shows my vulnerability. Over the years, I’ve seen her respond by opening up more.
Summarize – When the conversation starts winding down, summarize the essence of the conversation to confirm meaning and build trust. This may be the hardest part of active listening but with practice skills grow.
Finally, I use I-Messages – I-Messages communicate my feelings and values to my daughter about a behavior without preaching or giving advice. Examples of I-Messages are: I feel glad when you open up to me or I feel disappointed for you that you misplaced your homework.
Here is sample conversation that puts the steps together.
Mom: “Tell me about Amy?” – Open ended question
Grace: “She’s okay but she’s always with her new boyfriend Matt now. (Grace rolls her eyes.) He’s cool but they are just so in to each other.”
Mom: “So, they are really into each other?” – Active listening
Grace: “Yeah, I feel like the third wheel on a lopsided tricycle. It sort of makes me mad.”
Mom: “You are angry because you feel left out?” – Confirmation of meaning
Grace: “Yes, especially at lunch.”
Mom: “What can you do about that?” – Open ended question
Grace: “I guess I could go eat at Elizabeth and Lilian’s table.
Mom: You feel left out because of how Amy and Matt relate to each other, especially at lunch. But you are willing to eat with other friends. – Summarize
Grace: Yes, but I really miss Amy.
Mom: I know you miss your private time with Amy but I am really proud of you for trying new things. – I-Message
Grace: Thanks Mom.
David Brashear, a licensed clinical social worker who works with tweens and parents states that parents who take the time to learn and practice these skills, reap rewards beyond measure. He shares that parent-tween bonds strengthen, joint problem solving occurs more readily and risky teen behavior improves when parents practice these skills. As a parent, I simply enjoy the closeness and trust that comes from many conversations with open ended questions, active listening and I-messages.
Talking to your kids about school, healthy habits, peer pressure, sex, drugs, rock and roll as well as making positive choices is a lot to tackle during the tween years. The simple practice of developing discussions with open ended questions, active listening and I-messages can be the key to the kind of communication that keeps our children safe. And isn’t that what every parent wants?