How’s your summer going? Are you starting to think about back to school and things you want to tell your children to get them ready for the challenges ahead? I have spent a fair amount of time this summer driving Reason to various places, from San Diego to Pasadena, and we’ve had some interesting conversations. She’ll ask me about my experience at Beach High, and I answer in a way to prepare her for ninth grade. Thankfully, I heard suggestions on how to best communicate with a teen, and I want to share tips from Rochelle Caplan, M.D.’s talk, “Communicating with Children and Teens about their Problems: The Challenges” with you before your next road trip.
Adults need to act as the “communication assistant” of children aged 5 to 10. When communicating with children in this age group, adults need to modify their speech by using short, simple, focused, concrete action-based sentences (i.e., using verbs) without abstract words. Example: Adult: “How did you sleep?” Child: “In a bed.” See what she means? Next time think like a child. And, for heavens sake, don’t over-answer! Don’t be the person who tells you how to build a watch when all you wanted to know was the time. They’ll turn you off.
Ask “What?” and “How?” not “Why?” questions to obtain information from older children. When you ask “why” they feel interrogated. Hearing this, I had the chance to ask a 14-year old how she started drinking coffee and we discussed it naturally. If you don’t want a flip response, stop asking why. Then listen to the answer. I have learned more about Reason and her friends this way, and I impart values stealthily.
Caplan reminds us that opening channels of communication is key to understanding the problems children and adolescents face. And, she warns, repetitive negative emotions and behavior might be red flags for undiagnosed psychiatric disorders. If you get the feeling your child is going beyond “teen spirit” you might consider a second opinion. Remember, enjoy their youth; it goes as fast as summer vacation.