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Use this Magic Question to Communicate Better with Your Teen Today

Do you ever feel like your teen is from mars and you’re from venus? Sometimes, no matter what you say, or how you say it, it seems like you’re speaking two different languages. It may even feel like all of your customs and culture are completely different.

And it’s partially true!

You and your teen are from different generations. This means, you both have had radically different experiences, which have shaped your development and relationship patterns.

One of the most common frustrations I hear in families who have teens is struggles around communication.

On the side of the teen, they may feel they aren’t being understood.

On the side of the parent, they may feel as if they’re speaking into a canyon.

You get the drift. Communication is tough. It’s something we continually practice throughout this human journey. Learning how to communicate in a way that’s kind, clear, and effective is an admirable goal. In fact, it’s what gets practiced a lot in the therapy room.

I love learning new ways to communicate to achieve those ends. I want teens to feel understood, and I want parents to be able to communicate effectively. When those things happen, there tends to be more connection in the relationship. And connection is the foundation of every healthy relationship.

So much of parenting through your child’s teen years is struggling to figure out the new balance of independence & freedom, and safety & protection.  Communicating well, promotes both independence and structure.

Believe it or not, it’s possible to stay connected and have to correct your child.  The key is in the way you communicate.

I love to watch videos by other humans who are sharing their nuggets of wisdom with the world. Whatever your outlet for doing so (Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.), it seems like video content is taking over the world.

There’s something about listening to a person communicate what works for them that connects us to one another and sparks ideas on how we can make improvements in our own life.

I recently watched a video by the creator, Jay Alderton, who has a magic phrase he uses when talking to his spouse that has really helped him know how to respond. While he uses it in the context of marriage, I think it totally works between parents and teens too.

Keep an open mind and read on. Remember that the goal of communication with your teen is to stay connected, because parenting teens is a long-game activity. This may sound counterintuitive, but your conversation today, will impact your conversations for many tomorrows to come.

So, here goes…whenever your teen is telling you something, whether it’s about something a teacher did at school or drama in their social circle, I want to invite you to ask…

“Do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged?”

That’s it!

Super simple.

Before you run off though and give this a try, I wanted to talk a bit about why this works with teens and what your teen learns when you shift to using this question.

1) It helps them identify their needs

One of the skills of healthy relationships is learning to negotiate your needs. In order to do so however, you have to know your need first! And a lot of teens are just starting to practice this skill.

By labeling possible needs, your giving words to what might be going on for them and giving them space to ask.

So much of talking with teens in the adolescent years is scaffolding their skill-building. We provide structure and support in a helpful way, as they learn to develop those skills on their own.

What’s even better is, if they respond to the question above with a shrug or by saying, “I don’t know.” What a perfect opportunity for some scaffolding.

Then you have the space to say, “okay, when you figure it out let me know (see #4 below)” OR give them some options, which provides a chance form them to practice decision making.

One thing I practice a lot in therapy with teens is executive functioning skills. Those are the skills we all want our kids to have (time management, problem solving, decision making) to function as healthy adults.

Adolescence is a major season in brain development, and it’s a great time to practice those skills, as the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) is developing.

For teens who struggle with making decisions, whether from fear of what others will think or lack of internal self-talk or being a younger child who hasn’t had to decide much, giving your teen every opportunity to practice, can be helpful. With two or three finite options of what type of support you can provide, your teen will hopefully be able to #1 Identify their needs (label the emotion), #2 make a decision (practice this executive functioning skill), #3 negotiate receiving the needs (communicate better!), thereby giving you the chance to…

2) It gives you an opportunity to meet their need

I’ve studied a lot on the attachment cycle. It’s the foundation of how humans come to know about our worth, our relationship to others, and our view of the world.

We often think about attachment in infants.

And that’s true.

In the attachment cycle in infants, an infant expresses a need (cries) and then the caregiver may or may not meet the need (hold, feed, change diaper, etc.).

What many people don’t know about attachment, is that in continues in our relationships lifelong. And it creates the opportunity to repair earlier ruptures in a relationship.

So, when your teen expresses a need (“I want to be hugged”), then you the parent are able to meet the need and complete the attachment cycle (hug your teen).

Having a need activates the sympathetic nervous system and can lead to dysregulation and distress.

When we meet our teen’s need, we’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming system of the body.

Isn’t that cool?

When a need doesn’t get met, then the body can stay stuck in that sympathetic nervous system activation (fight/flight/freeze) and result in chronic stress. Which is why, whenever possible, I invite you to practice meeting your teen’s need.

This is one quick way to do so.

3) It helps you set your own emotional boundary

A lot of times as parents, when our teen comes to us with a situation, a feeling, or a story, we want to jump in and solve the problem. We want to help our child in any way that we can, whether that’s sharing advice, problem-solving for them, or alleviating their pain.

For example, if our teen comes to us about a conflict they’re having with a teacher or a friend, we’re often quick to come up with three possible solutions and then proceed to tell them which we think is best. That may work well with a three year old, not so much with a thirteen year old.  Our teen may have a disrespectful response to our involvement, get frustrated and storm off, compliantly nod, or just ignore us all together.

If our teen does ignore us altogether i.e. proceeding to reject all of our advice, do the complete opposite, and it possibly blowing up in their face, we get frustrated that they didn’t listen to us in the first place. Because we know better after all. Right?

But what if, all your teen wanted was for you to hear them out?

What if they weren’t looking for a solution?

What if they already had their own?

Or what if they weren’t ready to make a decision yet?

It’s possible to give them what they need (#2!) and not get too invested in the result.

By hearing them out, not providing them with your fabulous options, and letting them feel heard and understood, you’re actually opening the door for them to listen to you more when they are looking for help, because they know they can trust you to give them what they need…whether that’s a listening ear, a hug, or some help.

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