If you want to communicate better with your teenager, talk with him about things that interest him. Recently I coached a young man, David, who began the session by telling me he had had an awful week. He went on to describe a litany of events that were going wrong in his life: his grades were terrible; he was arguing with his parents daily about drinking, homework, and curfew; he felt repellent to girls, and on and on. David seemed quite depressed, and his energy was undeniably low. I listened politely to what he had to say, nodding appropriately as we therapists tend to do, and acknowledging that this must indeed be a difficult time for him. Honestly, however, after a few complaints, I felt my attention waning and my energy depleting as well, and I was wondering how I would make something useful out of such an overall negative hour.
After David completed his oration of problems and his posture had deteriorated from upright to gently slouching to the left of the couch, I said, hoping to inject a bit of humor into the session to lighten things up, “Well, this has been fun.” Sensing my sarcasm, he agreed that it had not in fact been fun, and I followed up with, “So what’s working, man?
What followed blew me away. David sat up on the couch, leaned forward, and started telling me about a show he had watched the previous evening on The History Channel. He talked about how little we knew about sea life deep on the ocean floor, describing in great detail the nature of the biology required for survival there. He went so far as to pantomime the look of some of these creatures so that I could better understand their oddities. And just like that, we found passion. But don’t be fooled: the first part of the conversation was important. David felt heard and validated. In the latter part, though, he found himself again: his joy, his passion, and his energy. If I hear 10 years from now that David has become a renowned marine biologist, I will not be a bit surprised. Amazing what a little shift in energy can do.
Granted, the conversation did not necessarily go where I wanted it to go. …I did not even know where I wanted it to go—just somewhere different from where it had been. Yet in the end, we found David’s energy, passion, and enthusiasm. All it took was a recognition of my own depleted energy and a subsequent shift in the focus of the conversation. David left the session with a spring in his step, and I would argue he felt good about the session—listened to and respected. He was eager for our next meeting and suggested I check out the show on THC as he was leaving. In fifty minutes, David moved from depressive, low-energy, negative thinking to high-energy excitement and enthusiasm. I had trouble getting him to end the session! And really, aren’t we all like that? Find our passion, and off we go. I know that describes me pretty well.
What a remarkable, simple little lesson. Engage teenagers in something they’re interested in, and they tend to be willing to talk about it. If you’re a busy parent, and who among us is not, you really need to take a moment, take a deep breath, or two, or three, and really protect time for this type of conversation. But a note of caution. If you’re in hurry-up mode, your teenager will sense it, and the opportunity for communication will be lost. So turn off the cell phone, take a deep breath, and get into it. Talk about your kid’s interests. Ask him questions. Debate with him. Have fun, and enjoy your time together!
I have heard from far too many teenagers that they feel their parents don’t truly care about them, and they will accurately cite Mom’s inattentiveness or Dad’s focus on work over them as a priority. A couple of weeks ago, in a family session, I caught a dad stealthily checking his e-mail on his Blackberry while his daughter was talking. At the time, this was kind of funny, I suppose—certainly another clear illustration of how very addictive these devices can be. But think about the message this teenager comes away with: Even for this one short hour, when we are here to focus on me, and my relationship with them, my dad cannot put that thing down. It was painful, really, because in that moment the father validated many of the assertions his daughter had made about him in sessions. Thankfully, this family was open enough to make this inattentiveness the focus of the conversation for a while, leaving open the possibility of hope for change.
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John Duffy is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach with a thriving private practice in the Chicago area. Dr. Duffy works with both teens and adults and specializes in helping parents maximize satisfaction and minimize conflict in their relationships with their teenagers. In addition to clinical work, Duffy also consults with individuals, groups and corporations in a number of areas, including Emotional Intelligence, stress management, balancing work and family, conflict resolution, goal-setting and the power of thoughts in bringing about change. Learn more about John at his website.