How to choose the right words when talking to your teen

Your teenage son comes home from school, mutters a few unintelligible words when you ask about his day and retreats to his room to play videogames. Your teenage daughter comes home from school, parks herself in the kitchen and unloads all her troubles in a tsunami of words. In both cases, you struggle to find the right words and the right tone.

What you need, clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel says, are some voice lessons. That’s just what she offers in Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen (Scribner, 2018).

Talking to Guys and Girls

The biggest mistake parents make, Mogel says, is confusing a momentary snapshot with the epic movie that is their child’s life.

“There’s so much forecasting going on, especially right now,” she says. “I want parents to reframe from judging and predicting to the possibility of enchantment, delight and surprise about this magical journey that they can go on with teenagers.”

One way to tap into enchantment and delight is to imagine your son as an exchange student from Kazakhstan or your daughter as a niece from Kentucky. Then, Mogel says, “you’re just a cultural anthropologist, and you’re studying the ways of a different culture.”

Reframing your relationship that way also lets you focus on the here and now, much as you would with a temporary houseguest. You might even worry less that your son’s bad score on his ninth-grade math quiz will ruin his chances of landing a great job a decade from now.

Talking to Guys

Mogel thinks parents worry about boys because they fill in silences with doomsday scenarios.

“The parents’ combination of high intelligence, creative imagination and paranoia created by the news leads them to think if he’s not talking, he’s up to something,” she says. “And if he’s up to something, it’s bad. And if it’s bad, his future is doomed.”

More likely, he’s not talking because he has run out of energy.

“I want them to act worse at home, because it means they’ve gone to a lot of effort to expend the energy required of their very demanding lives,” she says. “Home is a soft landing.”

Talking to Girls

Girls tend to be at the other end of the sharing spectrum from boys.

“It’s so different with daughters, because girls are so verbally skilled,” Mogel says. “Then we mistake their general sophistication for emotional maturity.”

Mogel says parents shouldn’t feel pressured to fix their daughters’ problems.

“What girls do is they download all their problems to Mom and reject all her solutions,” she says. “Then Mom is stewing, and the girl has passed her right by. She’s on to the next thing; that problem’s gone.”

If all else fails (with girls and guys alike), Mogel says parents should remember these lines from T.S. Eliot: “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.”

“I want parents to reflect rather than reacting in the moment,” she says.

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