How do I talk to my kid?

Written By:  Kin Leung, LMFT | ACS Site Supervisor, Gunn High School

Sometimes it can feel that teenagers are some of the most difficult people to understand on the planet. On top of that, being a parent makes it even more challenging to talk to your own teenage children. As a psychotherapist, my job is to listen and talk to people to help them better understand themselves and their issues. In order for that understanding to happen, there are a few prerequisites that need to be present.


First: Mutual respect

One mistake that I see many parents make when trying to understand their teenage children is to assume that they can command respect from their kids. Ironically, adolescence is a period in which children’s developmental task is to CHALLENGE authority and acquire independent thinking skills. It is expected that parents have an unusual time understanding their adolescents because they are going through a transition from being taken care of to relying on themselves to figure things out. Some parents misunderstand the concept of respect by thinking that once they show respect towards their kids, they will never listen to them again. Instead, respect is an INVITATION for children to open up to us to have genuine and meaningful conversations. If we can learn to RESPECT the little adults enough to listen to what they have to say, their reluctance and defenses would have nothing to press against and our chances of understanding their needs and having a positive impact on them would be much higher.

Second: Patience

“All good things to those who wait”. To build communication with teenagers, parents need to learn to take things slowly. Although we have the best intentions in the world, it does not necessarily mean our children can always understand why we do what we do. Due to their developmental position, sometimes things simply do not make sense to them. Forcing them to accept certain concepts may lead to more confusion and unnecessary friction in the family. Remember when they first started learning to use the spoon? Did you get mad every time they made a mess? No, because you understood that was part of the process. You told yourself you needed to be patient and loving because those were the elements that would help them eventually get it. However, it is harder to be patient when they are 16 because they are smart enough to pass their AP Calculus class but they refuse to do their laundry on a consistent basis. True, part of it is laziness, but it has more to do with their sense of responsibility which needs to be nourished and rewarded with patience. Even though they have the physical skills to be responsible, the mental components associated with a responsible adult are not quite intact in adolescents, just like how babies can physically lift a spoon, but they still lack the coordination and understanding of cause and effect to eat with it independently. Again, patience and love are more effective than authority in helping adolescents grasp important life concepts.

Third: Know when to pull and let go

Like flying a kite, communicating with adolescents requires that you be flexible and know when to tighten and loosen. The key here is knowing WHEN, and this knowledge needs to come from a true understanding of what your child needs, not just what you think he/she needs. More than a few times I have heard parents confess in me: “I don’t understand why. I treat all my kids the same, but look at how different they turned out to be.” It is not a surprise to me that parents try to be consistent among all their children, especially when they have had success with the older ones. However, this cookie-cutter method is not only ineffective, but it can also create much resentment among the children because it takes away their individual differences.

Instead, we should focus on the uniqueness of the child. Pay close attention to his/her strengths and limitations and try to be aware of how they learn. For some teenagers, they need to be supported with more direct guidance whereas for others, they learn better when they try to figure things out on their own. As parents, we have to be flexible enough to meet our kids’ needs. Sometimes, the best teaching is to do nothing.

Fourth: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

It takes an understanding attitude to understand. We should learn to put ourselves in our teenagers’ shoes. Sometimes we forget what it was like for us to go through adolescence. It may seem like a century ago when we were teenagers; how we felt so self-conscious about our appearances; how we felt this inexplicable confusion about our identities; and how the hormones in our bodies were shooting in all directions. It was an awkward period, but we all went through it. It may take some effort for us to remind ourselves that growing up is not an easy process, especially during a time like today. It is an understanding like that which can help us better relate to our teenagers. In order for them to open up to you, teenagers need to know that your purpose is not to DOMINATE their lives or tell them what to do; rather, you are there to simply try to UNDERSTAND what they are going through. After they let you in, you have a much greater chance of having a positive impact on their decision making and making it a teachable moment.

Fifth: Make it fun!

As adults, we are so used to being serious. Although we are concerned about our children’s grades, there is more going on in life than just school. Children need to know, and hear from us, that we care more than just about their school performance. Get into a habit of doing small talks with them. Be curious parents, but not detectives. One thing that I hear kids complain most is that their parents tend to be very judgmental when it comes to the children’s social life. When our kid tells us that their friend is drinking at a party, the thought that it can be bad influence for our kid can be a hard one to shake off. However, it can also determine whether your kid will continue to trust you with information like that. If you can take it with a sense of ease, it is very likely that your kid will feel more comfortable sharing more with you. Listening with a sense of EASE and CURIOSITY is not the same as approving the behavior, however. The idea is to have a conversation with them about their day-to-day life, so they know that they can tell you everything that goes in their lives. Problem solving starts with problem sharing; if our kids can get into a habit of sharing the problems they face with us, we can then become part of the solution.

It is not easy to develop an open channel of communication with our children, but given the atmosphere in our society, we CANNOT afford to not have one. Otherwise, we would be running the risk of letting the media and pop culture do the parenting for us.