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Increasing Communication Between Parent and Teenager

Talk Sometimes Does Not Change Behavior
For some teenagers, talk, explanations, lectures, conversations, or trying to get them to see the problem from a different angle will help to change their behavior. For others, the talk is about as effective as asking the wall to move back four feet, and will not work to change the behavior. Some children - "attitude kids" - develop appropriate attitudes through communication or explanation. Once they have developed the desired attitude, their behavior will change. For other teenagers, talk, explanations, and lectures go in one ear and out the other, and will not change their behavior. These children need to experience consequences; by experiencing the consequences of their behavior, they develop the desired attitude. Therefore, talk and verbal interaction with some children should be used as a form of communication, not as a disciplinary tactic to change behavior. For these youngsters, what you say is not as important as what you do.

Let us use as an example the fifteen-year-old who is continually hitting his younger brother, who weighs sixty pounds less. The parent sits down with the older boy and explains carefully that he might easily hurt his brother, that his brother is much smaller, that he should tolerate his brother, that he should love his brother, and that he should not hit him. However, after numerous repetitions of this explanation, the child still continues to hit his little brother.

Another child who is not doing homework has received at least 47 different lectures on the importance of education and the need to do homework, but still appears to have an "I don't care" attitude when it comes to school-related work.

Excessive explaining to this type of child will only interfere with effective communication. In the examples above, the parent should say, "The next time you hit your brother, this [consequence] is going to happen to you, and if you don't hit your brother, something different [a different consequence] is going to happen to you." Or "If you do your homework, you will be able to use the car this weekend or go to the movies on Saturday. The week when you do not do your homework, you will not be able to go out on the weekend."

Think Before You Open Your Mouth
This topic primarily involves overreacting to what has been said by an adolescent, or reacting to him before you have a chance to think. Many times teenagers say things just to get parents upset or to get a reaction from them. When you overreact, you are giving them exactly what they want. If this occurs, they may continue to say things that provoke a reaction. A fifteen-year-old may say, "I'm quitting school. I don't need an education. I'm tired of all of this homework." The parent may then overreact, get upset, start lecturing and berating the youngster, pointing out the value of education. Another child who does not get her way may say, "I'm leaving this house and never coming back." Again, an overreaction frequently follows a statement like this.

The other reaction that falls in this category involves not thinking before you respond to a child. It may be something as simple as this: A child asks his parent, "Mom, can I sleep at Robbie's house?" A second after the child asks the question, the mother says, "No." After thinking about it for a while, she realizes that there was no reason to say no and now tells him he can go. Some parents will respond negatively before they have a chance even to think about the question.

My son had a summer job, and after working two weeks and receiving his first paycheck, he told me he was going to buy a new car. My initial thoughts were, "You have to be crazy. You don't even have enough money to buy a set of tires. Do you know how much a new car costs?" In other words, I wanted to tell him how crazy and impossible the idea was. Rather than respond in this fashion, however, I just began to talk to him about the type of car he was going to buy, the color of the car, and so on. After a while, we got into a discussion of how much the car would cost, and I think he began to realize how far he had to go before he could even consider getting a new car. In other words, I think he then realized what I initially thought without my having to say it.

A significant amount of negative attention, confrontation, explaining away a child's feelings, or telling him how wrong he is can be avoided by staying calm and thinking a little before you talk. This is much easier said than done, but usually becomes less difficult with practice. Rather than react or overreact to the child, talk to him. If you have assessed the situation and feel that the reason that your child is saying certain things is to get a reaction from you, do not give him the reaction. If you have a tendency to overreact or to respond to your child before thinking, it might be a good idea to tell him that you will consider the situation, or use the "Let me think about it and I'll get back to you later" approach. Then, after a period of time, you can talk to him. You could also tell him that you want to discuss this matter with your spouse and will get back to him. Be sure you do get back to him later. Counting to ten and various other techniques can also be used to help you think before you respond.


From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Buy the book at Barron's.

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