As our children get older, especially when they transition from Primary to Secondary School, conversations around the dining table get shorter and shorter.
How was your day?
What do you mean ok?
It was ok.
Do you have anything else to say?
Why is it that as they get older, it gets harder and harder to have a conversation with them? We can blame it on the emotional instability that comes out of puberty, we can also associate their behaviour with typical teenage rebellion. But these do not in any way help us solve the nagging problem – how do I engage my teenager in conversation?
This is what we hope to address in this article, because we believe that it is important to talk to our teenagers. The society is quick to point fingers and label our children – they are just being millennials or they are simply wanting to express their independence. While these attacks are going on, let us not be found guilty of joining in the bandwagon of blame, but let us instead as loving parents and educators, value what our struggling and often stressed out children have to say. This brings us to the first point.
This goes both ways. We want to hear what they say, because we value their emotions and their opinions. However, the words we use to initiate conversation often determine the direction of the conversation.
Take for example the mum who says, “how was school today” versus another who asks, “learn anything interesting in your favourite science class today?” Both mums have the desire to have a conversation with their children, yet one asks a generic question while the other specifies a topic to spark discussion. The second example shows a mum who knows their child well and values their favourites. It is far easier to talk about something you enjoy rather than a nonchalant “how was your day”.
When they are younger, it is helpful to ask close-ended questions that they can answer easily. “Did you have fun today?” “Did you go to the playground with your friends?” But if we continue to ask questions like these as they get older, we end up killing the conversation. “How was school today?” is one such example.
After spending six hours in the classroom and three more in their CCA, the last thing your teen wants to talk about is school. Begin by telling them about something interesting in your day instead, who you met in the market or the prank you pulled on your colleague at work etc. Only then do you turn the conversation over to them and perhaps on a lighter note ask, “do you and your best friend laugh about something today during recess?”
Jayden comes home and immediately throws himself on the sofa then flicks on the television. Mum shouts from the kitchen, “could you please shower and put the clothes in the wash before you laze around?”
Without moving an inch, Jayden shouts back, “I’m tired”. And continues watching the television.
Mum’s voice retorts, “you can’t be tired, you’re twenty years younger than me and I’m preparing your dinner”.
Does this sound like a typical evening in your home?
As adults, let’s not be too quick to impose our judgement on our children. Instead, let us learn to mirror their emotions instead. Often time, we only have to pause and look at them to know how they feel and rather than trying to talk them out of their negative emotions, lets mirror them instead to show empathy but more importantly to show their solidarity.
When they are toddlers, we drop everything and rush to them when they cry. As they get older, we should definitely expect more independence and resilience from them. However, there are days we can turn off the stove, slump next to them on the sofa as if to say, “I’m tired today too, let’s order in for once. You can decide.”
It’s so rare for parents of teenagers to mirror our teens emotions, but in doing so we are taking their side and telling them it’s okay for them to be tired, angry or sad. This builds a bridge of trust and is the first step in getting them to share their story.
Taking the illustration one step further, after the family finishes the dinner they ordered in. Mum or dad could linger around in Jayden’s room before bed and then try to hear him out, what made him so tired today. A bad grade, a fight with a friend or a scolding from his rugby coach perhaps. If parents just brush off a child’s emotions, insisting he gets over it himself, the door to further counsel is immediately closed.
Many of my peers who are doctors or teachers have taken up these professions become their parents expected them to, but more so because their parents were in these professions themselves. Often, whether consciously or subconsciously we create such a perfect image of ourselves that our children find it hard to approach us. In the most ideal cases, they emulate our successes and themselves do well in life. On the other end of the spectrum, they try but they fail and end up clamming up.
It might be partially due to our Asian upbringing that we shun away from being vulnerable with our children, but we ought to for their sake. When we take the first step to say, “I’m sorry” or “that was my bad”, it makes it easier for them to say it back to us when they’ve done something wrong. More importantly it helps them to recognise, that we too make mistakes. This helps them cope better emotionally when they fall and gives them a more realistic benchmark to emulate.
In upper Primary when I started to fail math, it was a huge blow to me. More so because both and parents and younger brother loved the subject and naturally excelled at it. But rather than putting me down, mum sat next to me as I painstakingly did my math revision and help me immensely by making comments such as, “that was such a tricky question” or “I nearly made the same mistake myself”. These remarks did not help me improve my mathematical skills, but they certainly built my self-esteem and helped me regain the confidence I had loss as a result of bad grades.
When we are willing to be vulnerable to our children, it communicates to them that it is okay for them to be weak in front of us as well. And whilst their preference in this stage of life would be to find comfort in their friends or social media, we must continue to intentionally keep that door of communication open for whence they need it.
Whilst it may be true that teenage rebellion and independent expression has its place in our struggles to understand our pre-teens and teens. Let us also remind them, that we have been there before, and that in being vulnerable, asking the right questions and mirroring their emotions we value what little they have to say.