You just took your soon-to-be 16-year-old to the car and explained everything. First steering, signaling and acceleration, then lane changes, parallel parking, freeway merging, tire and oil changes — and perhaps the most important part — braking. You explained everything thoroughly and completely, so now you’re finished.
Learning how to drive and maintain a vehicle come from actually operating it, just like the mastery of life comes from living it. Similarly, one giant, all-encompassing lecture will not suffice for instruction when it comes to guiding kids through life’s challenges.
Drugs, sex, suicide, divorce, body hatred, cheating and other weighty topics are often hard to have one conversation about, let alone several.
Yet JP Legerski, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota, recommends doing just that.
Legerski says the traditional lecture about the birds and the bees “is problematic because it conveys the notion that everything teens need to know about sexuality can be reduced to one single, and oftentimes awkward, conversation.”
Talking about tough topics in a formal way “creates an artificial boundary around when it is appropriate for parents and children to talk,” Legerski explains. “Difficult topics should come up throughout childhood and adolescence, returning to conversations as often as needed, so that youth feel they can approach their parents with any questions they might have and know they’ll receive an honest and nonjudgmental answer.”
When it comes time to have tough talks with your kids, keep these expert techniques in mind to help enhance your communication.
Take time together privately before you talk: Making the effort to share some alone time with your child can help create the intimacy necessary to begin a tough conversation. “Sitting your child or teen down and having them look you straight in the eye doesn’t usually work well for most kids and parents,” Legerski continues. “Parents may find it easier to bring these topics up when they are engaged in another activity, like when preparing a meal, taking a drive or going out for a walk."
Carol M. Hutcheson, a mother of six and retired junior high and high school teacher of 20 years, recommends taking time to speak in private. “Difficult conversations always go better in person in a comfortable, non-threatening setting free from the distractions of texting, phone calls or interruptions of others.”
Creating time also adds legitimacy to the words you are saying by showing your love and not just verbalizing it. “I believe that when your teen knows how much you care, you can talk to him or her about anything. The child may or may not like and accept what you are saying but cannot deny you are saying it out of love,” states Hutcheson.
Use life to teach about life: “Instead of planning an elaborate seminar, it may be easier — and more effective — to look for impromptu teachable moments,” Legerski counsels.
“For example, parents can initiate casual conversations about images that convey sexuality and/or drug use that families come across while watching television, listening to the radio or even while standing in the checkout aisle where tabloid magazines provide plenty of examples to spur discussion.”
Answer questions with questions: If a child approaches you with a tough question, find out what they already know, or think they know.
“For example,” explains Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., coauthor of “Before Push Comes to Shove,” “if your child asked, ‘What is a nuclear bomb?’ you could ask her, ‘What do you know about bombs?’ Depending on what she says, you might ask another question or clear up a confusion you realize she has, or give her reassurance that you realize what she needs. Often a child’s need to feel safe and secure is behind the questions she asks.”
Be there for your teen with an open attitude: Parents should try to communicate openness even if they don’t know what to say or how to say it.
Child psychologist and author Michael Thompson stated on the pbs.org parent help-site, “Parent-child communication is composed of both music and lyrics. When someone listens to music, he may focus on either the melody or on the lyrics. Children are always listening to the melody, or tone, of a parent’s voice. Unfortunately, we, the parents, are often paying more attention to our lyrics.”
Hutcheson agrees that the way we say things is as important as what we say.
“Issues are best addressed in a calm, non-accusing manner so that your body language and tone of voice can convey your love and concern. Saying things online, on the phone, or in a hurried or too cut-and-dried manner can lead to hurt or misunderstanding, leading the child to feel vulnerable or to take offense and fight back.”
Alexa Sturdevant, a recent graduate from Great Falls High School in North Dakota, admits it’s hard for teenagers to talk to their parents, but it’s important for parents to listen even if they don’t hear much or like what they do hear.
“I’m a fairly closed-off person when it comes to my feelings,” she says, “so I think it’s hard for my parents to really understand things as I’m going through them.
Even if a parent doesn’t know the whole situation, if they are present enough to see when something is wrong, it makes kids much more willing to share and for communication to happen more easily. I know they do their best to be there, which is a nice reassurance just being present increases communication.”
Admit your humanity and embrace humor: Recognize that some discussions are likely to be uncomfortable but need to be initiated by the parent.
“If you feel embarrassed,” says Legerski, “it is OK to own up to it by saying something like, ‘This is really embarrassing, but I am just going to throw it out there. Do you and your friends ever talk about sex?’ Acknowledging that you’re embarrassed and embracing the awkwardness with a little humor can help to lighten the mood.”
Sturdevant agrees. “Humor kind of brings the conversation to a middle ground,” she said. “Humor turns a situation where the age difference could cause some communication blocks into a level playing field.”
Miranda H. Lotz is a military wife, mother of four, bibliophile and musician. She lives on a remote Air Force station in Cavalier, North Dakota.