The excerpt below is taking from “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go” by Dr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski (Book Ends Publishing, 2003).
“Why does she (my mother) think she knows anything about me?”
A lot of teens I interviewed told me that their parents don’t really know them. These teens wanted to be recognized and loved for “who I am inside.” Parents often get hung up on physical appearance—if teens have a pierced earring or pink hair or strange clothing—and miss the inner essence of their teen. As one mother said, “We’re not paying attention to who they are inside. And that’s what they want more than anything.”
How do you get to know who your teenager really is? Observe, listen, and don’t ask questions. Unfortunately, some parents are lost when it comes to understanding how to do each of these.
Observe. See if you can figure out who your teen is by quietly observing how he behaves, what she likes and dislikes. Try to pick up on subtle signals. Look into your teen’s face. Notice if the expression has shifted from rested to tired, or from solid to vulnerable. Look at the way she moves, the position of his shoulders, the presence or absence of a bounce in the walk. Observe her emotions. Is she sad, glad, or mad? Is she holding in these feelings? Is fear present? Is he hopeful or doubtful, content or confused? If you look, you can catch these “places”—emotional, physical, and social—that your teen inhabits.
Listen. See if you can just listen—with no judgments or opinions about anything. If you’re not listening, you’ll seem incredibly phony to a teenager and they can detect it instantly. They’ll also tend to tune you out when you have something to express. So show interest. Encourage your teen to be herself and talk about what she loves. Make your teen feel comfortable, so she will open up. Your most important togethering tool is listening deeply! Know that you have a lot of listening to do.
Stop the questions. See if you can carry on a conversation without asking one question. One mother confessed: “I do the stupid parent thing. I ask questions, and I don’t even know how to do it differently.” How do you have a conversation without questions? Teens are good at it! Be a fly on the wall and listen to their technique. You will discover that they don’t ask each other any questions. They just talk. They would feel free to say “Gosh, I hate Ms. Duff (a coach).” “Man, what a jerk.” “This is what I heard she did to somebody else.” They would keep talking about it. But a parent would say, “What happened?”
Catch yourself the next time you ask your son’s or daughter’s friends all your usual questions. They will like you a whole lot better! We send a lot of signals when we ask questions. We let them know what we think is important by the questions we ask. How obvious this is to a teen! Listen to these typical parent questions, and I’m sure you will recognize some of your own: “How are your classes going this semester?” “Do you have a part-time job?” “Did your field hockey team win their last game?” “What are you going to do over spring break?” “Do you like your teachers this term?” “What are your plans for the summer?” “So, what college are you applying to?” “Why do you like that college?” Remind yourself, again and again if necessary, to stop asking so many questions.
Teens find our questions annoying. It is one sure way for your teen to tune you out. They don’t want to give you too much information because it feels like you are prying too much into their lives. Try to spark your teen’s interest in a conversation instead. Say, “I had an awesome day—I took a nap, did some reading, and called some close friends.” Or try, “You wouldn’t believe what I did this evening, or who I saw today.” Then let your teen respond to you. If he doesn’t feel like talking, let it be. Remember: if you ask questions, I guarantee, your teen will give you a zero-to three-word answer, then hurry away from you.
A mother shared with me how well she got to know her teen’s inside by observing, listening, and not asking questions. The topic was why did he dress “that way” (i.e., with an orange mohawk and clothes that had holes in them ). She said: “I think you dress the way you do to express yourself differently—that you really want to tell the world that you are different from kids who dress at Land’s End. I think it also helps you find friends who have similar interests.” Her teen was completely taken back because she was exactly right. But then her teen added something else to the conversation. He said, “Another reason I dress this way is that if out of 100 people, 99 won’t speak to me because I have a mohawk and my clothes have holes, then the one person who speaks to me will become a true friend because that person speaks to me regardless of how I look and that person is interested in who I am.” And that’s key with teens. They want to be accepted and regarded for who they are inside.
Bottom line: If you want to discover who your teen really is, observe, listen, and don’t ask questions.