How to communicate effectively with your teen

Dear Dr. Karyn,

I saw you recently on TV talking about practical strategies parents can use to get their kids to talk, and I was fascinated. I have three daughters and realize there are many things I’m doing wrong in my communication with them. I started feeling empowered listening to your suggestions. Would you mind e-mailing me that top 10 list? Thanks for all your help with parents and teens. We need all the help we can get.

I’m so glad to hear you feel empowered. I’ve coached parents and youth for nearly 20 years and have learned firsthand there are many things parents can do to encourage their kids to talk. And there are some things that will push them away. So as you requested, here is my top 10 list of things parents can do to encourage their kids (of any age) to talk. This is not an exhaustive list but one to get you thinking:

Be safe: Parents need to be a safe place. Kids don’t talk if they feel their parents are going to judge them, tell other people confidential information, or make fun of what they are saying.

Listen more: Last year, I asked more than a thousand kids what they needed from their parents that would encourage them to talk with them. The no. 1 response was “to listen more.” So often many of us are quick to give solutions when really our kids just want us to listen.

Choose good timing: Timing is everything. Think of the time of day that’s worked best in the past. When have you gotten your kids to talk before? For most kids, it’s at night or after school — not in the morning!

Know your emotions: Parents, be aware of your emotions. Kids are incredibly aware of how their parents are feeling. If parents are more relaxed and easygoing, kids are more likely to talk. If parents are stressed out or anxious, kids are more likely to keep things to themselves.

Be alone: Kids are more likely to talk if it is just them and their parents.

Think of a past success: Every child has a secret formula that gets him to talk. Think of a past success when you got your child to talk. Where were you? Who was with you? What time of the day was it? How were you feeling? How was he feeling? Start looking for these golden opportunities.

Know your child’s and your learning styles: An auditory learner won’t need to have eye contact during communication while a visual learner will. Meanwhile, a hands-on or kinesthetic learner will need to doodle or do something while she talks and, often, an auditory learner will think the kinesthetic learner is not listening. Not understanding how learning styles impact communication often leads to frustration and anger. Get to know your child’s learning style and how this impacts her communication with you.

Know gender communication differences: Girls like eye contact, many guys do not. This is really important to understand in parent-child relationships. It’s important for fathers to understand that, often, daughters need to have eye contact from them or they will think their dad is not listening to them. Similarly, it’s important for mothers to understand that, often, sons will find eye contact too intense. When I’m coaching girls, I’ll give them eye contact. When I’m coaching guys, I’ll often (not always) talk “sideways” — we’ll both face the same direction. This approach reduces eye contact and makes communication more comfortable. Driving in a car or doing an activity can allow this approach to happen naturally.

Know your body language: Ninety-three percent of communication is non verbal, e.g., eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions. It’s important for parents — for all people — to start being aware of their body language. Do you talk too much? Talk too little? Do you give too many solutions? Do you frown? Do you avoid eye contact? Do you apologize when you’ve done something wrong, and if not, what message do you think that sends to your children? What is your body language communicating? To help you with this, ask your children directly keeping in mind they may or may not have the words to answer. Or you can purchase my resource “Analyze Your Teen,” a four-part CD series and 40-page workbook. In the workbook is a report card template designed by a group of teenagers. If you give this report card to your child allowing him to evaluate your communication, you will have 100 percent clear direction about what you need to work on. This tool is extremely helpful!

Listen and be open for feedback: Often, children will tell parents what they need, but often, parents are too busy or not emotionally prepared to really pick up these signs. The only way we improve is if we are open to feedback. The problem is: if our egos are too fragile or we suffer from low self-esteem, we tend to take things personally and find it difficult to hear criticism. My encouragement is that relationships only improve if we are able to acknowledge what we are doing well while also acknowledging the areas that need work.

Dr. Karyn Gordon is one of North America’s leading relationship and parenting experts. She is a regular contributor to “Good Morning America,” founder of dk Leadership, best-selling author of “Dr. Karyn’s Guide To The Teen Years” (Harper Collins), and motivational speaker to a quarter of a million people. Visit her at www.dklea‌dersh‌ip.org and on Twitter: @DrKarynGordon.

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