Teenagers Are Awesome, Part Three| How To Create Meaningful Dialogue Opportunities With Your Teen
There was a time in our house that getting my kids to talk was never a problem. In fact, having a moment of silence was often the more pressing need. If that’s your season, I know you can feel like your ears might fall off from the noise and the clamor and the constant requests that stream out of little people. But, if you can handle some advice from a veteran of those noisy trenches, I’d tell you to treasure that season. It won’t always be that easy to know what the people in your house are thinking. Because some day they will be teenagers in the throes of hormone shifts. Some day they will be young adults who are developing their own network of sounding boards outside of your home. And some day you may look up and realize you’ve sorted their laundry, washed their dishes, and scrubbed their bathroom, but you have no idea what’s inside their hearts.
And that’s the day you’ll need to be prepared to come back to the basics of child raising, which is always found in meaningful interaction. And there are definitely some tried and true tactics that can be simply implemented in a home that fosters the kind of interaction we’re looking for as parents. I’ll be honest, most of them involve food, but even behind that very necessary ingredient, is the heart of a mom or a dad that says, “I care about you. I care what you’re thinking. I care enough to draw it out. And I will always care.”
Recently, my daughter thanked me for just that, for caring about her life. True, it came out kind of like, “You drive me crazy sometimes, but I’m glad you want to know what’s happening inside of me,” but I’ll take that any day. Crazy and all.
So, to that end, here’s some suggestions for what’s worked in our house to create meaningful opportunities for dialogue. Keep in mind these don’t create meaningful dialogue every single time. They simply create the atmosphere for those conversations to happen when they need to and when your teenager is ready. You definitely can’t force a teenager to talk to you, but you can make it easier for them to do so by scripting habits that teens can come to expect as their family normal. And when that’s in place, they will always know the inroads to having access to you without having to possess the relationship skills to forge them on their own.
Dinner at the table, several times a week. I can’t harp on this enough to young parents. I guarantee 75% of the discipleship of our children has occurred around our dining table. Get in the habit of it when they are little and don’t have schedules of their own, and then hold on to it for dear life when you hit the Grand Central Station era of the teenage years. It won’t make for life-changing moments at every meal, but it will cause you to habitually be prepared for gauging the temperature of your people as you discuss their goings and comings of the day over dinner. How often? As often as you can. Our family goal has always been never to go longer than 48 hours without sitting down all together for a meal. This has become exponentially more difficult as they’ve grown older, but can usually happen if you fight for it, and if you’ll turn off the TV and require cell phones to be banished for 30 minutes.
One on one “dates” at least once a month or so. This doesn’t have to be a huge deal. You’re not necessarily in it to teach them how to be a good date, although that might be a sweet by-product. You’re in it to create the opportunity for them to open up. And I’ve found that if food is involved, the tongue is loosened up, which means a quick run to Sonic for cheese sticks can often produce more results than an entire afternoon of going to the movies together.
Making the most of car time. Especially in the years leading up to the receiving of a driver’s license, teens have to be carted around constantly. I used to begrudge the mom taxi time, until I realized that my teenagers were most open to sharing about their day immediately when I picked them up from school. Once I made a shift and made sure I wasn’t talking on the phone or listening to a podcast when they got in the car, the empty space was very often filled with the downloading of information. Sometimes that information was superficial, but sometimes it was vital. Especially if something was bothering them, it would often come out in the first moments of getting in the car, a result, I think, of it having been bottled up all day and coming out in the first moment of safety. Once they enter the house, there are dozens of other things to grab their attention, so if at all possible, don’t get out of the car until they’re done. And, if the conversation starts rolling on the way home and it’s a gold mine into your teen’s heart, letting your car find it’s way to Sonic and ordering cheese sticks again wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Staying up for the late night convos. I know this one is hard, and it just may not be possible every night. But, I’ve found that if I can wait out the dinner hour, the ballet lessons, and the homework late into the evening, there’s often a teenager wanting to chat on the other side. The trick here is to not get caught up in your own nightly routine that often involves your favorite show as a way to decompress, or at least not getting caught up so much that you aren’t able to sense the need your teenager has of an important conversation. Sometimes, it’s good to just make that final round in the evening and go right back to the old days with a hug and a kiss when their light is going out. You might be surprised how often you’ll be stopped with a question or a “can we talk” request. Somehow, going to bed is a doorway, one that leads away from today and opens up the mind to thoughts of tomorrow, which in turn seems to remind a teenager of the things they are trying to process in life. And if it’s one of those moments, it’s usually worth the loss of sleep.
Saturday mornings. This doesn’t happen in our house every week, depending on our schedules, but I try very hard to keep this time free from responsibilities as much as possible. Since my teenagers love to sleep in, I do my best not to wake them early, but I also don’t let them sleep until noon. I’ve found that if there’s one meal of the week that I can invest time and energy in, this is it. Teenagers are a lot less grumpy about waking up on Saturday if there’s a big breakfast spread waiting for them. And after we eat together in our bed hair, I pace myself, making sure I don’t rush right in to handing out weekend chores (which they all know is eventually coming), but being willing instead to linger over the table. I know not all teens are the same, but I’ve found that the ones in my house are willing to stay at the table longer on Saturday mornings than any other time. It’s also the block of time that we tend to laugh the most. Some of our best family “inside” jokes come from Saturday morning shenanigans, and I think it stems from kids and parents both being rested and not pressed for time. (A side note here—I’ve found that the worst time to engage my teenagers in any kind of conversation is in the mornings before school. Anything beyond, “What are you packing for your lunch?” doesn’t seem to work at all in our house.) So, try dialing it back on Saturdays. Whip up the pancakes. Fry the bacon. Have an extra cup of coffee. And see if you can change the pace of one morning a week. (And then, hand out those chores.)
Road trips. This was something I stumbled upon accidentally. It happened when my oldest started taking his art to some competitions out of town. We didn’t have the funds to take the whole family, so I usually got to be the one who loaded him up and drove several hours to the competition. And there we were, in a foreign city with foreign restaurants and foreign shopping malls and foreign parks and museums. And it was just the two of us, so much easier to tailor the agenda around one kid instead of four. He got to be THE kid for 36-48 hours, and somehow it got that reserved, quiet boy of mine to start talking. So, I tried it with the next one. Different reason for the road trip, different venues, different personality—and it still worked. If you don’t have a need for a road trip, make one up. And when you stop to eat, try this sentence out. “Order whatever you want.” Especially if your kid is used to you budgeting the eating out excursions and having to consider how much a ticket is going to be for a family of 6, there’s power in that sentence when it’s just you and your teenager staring at a menu. Obviously, you may not be able to road trip really often, but a couple of times with each teenager during their high school years can create some good bonds and some great memories.
Author’s Note: This is the last of a three part series. Please find parts one and two in previous posts.