I was at a girls soccer game recently, and the players were taking a brief water break and glanced over and saw me. I was having a conversation with a parent, and they pointed at me and said “We’re winning this for you Mr. Bennett!” The parent laughed and said, “Hey, there are other people on the sidelines too. I guess all we do is pay the bills!” He said it in good fun and was laughing.
This illustrates a great point about parent-teen relationships. Many parents find that their kids won’t listen to them, and instead listen to and even admire others over and above them. Even when parents are genuinely trying to connect to their kids, their kids resist. How can you as a parent connect to your kids when it seems impossible?
1. Remember the “Gratitude Ratio”
I read a few years ago (honestly I can’t remember where) that in order for someone to take your criticism as constructively (as opposed to consider it nitpicking) you have to have previously praised and encouraged them eight times.
Did you read that? If you want someone to listen to your criticism genuinely, you have to encourage him or her at an 8 to 1 encouragement to criticism ratio. I suppose it boils down to trust. You know that if someone has encouraged you eight times, that any criticism coming from them is more likely to be coming from a place of genuine concern rather than angry nitpicking. We call this 8-1 encouragement to criticism ratio “The Gratitude Ratio.”
Many parents find themselves constantly finding reasons to criticize their kids. It seems like the only “news” they focus on relating to their kids is bad news. But is it really??
Many parents become sensitized to the good things they kids are doing. They ignore the regular goodness of their own kids. They pay attention to rare bad thing instead of the string of good things their kids do most of the day. A “C” on a test? The kid get yelled at. The three “As” before that? Barely a word of praise.
Keep this in mind when interacting with your kids. It is important to offer praise and encouragement for the things that you may consider expected behavior. Even something as simple as a kid getting home on time regularly is worthy of a “thank you.” I make it a point to encourage my students whenever I can. I don’t make up stuff to praise them, but I find the admirable things they do and point them out. This makes your kid much more likely to hear you out when you have something unpleasant to tell them.
2. Help Them See Where They Need To Change
Most of us are great at telling kids how they need to change, and hammering that point home via lectures or screaming. However, there is a huge communication difference between telling a kid they need to change, and actually getting the kid herself to see the need for change.
None of us responds to “You need to…” statements very well. Adults know this, because they can’t stand when adults or teens use this language, yet many parents use it with their kids all the time.
Instead, help your kid actually see the need for change the same way that anybody else sees the need for change.
Let’s say you want your kid to try harder in math class. To do this, highlight the positives of where your kid currently is, for example praising him on the hard work he is doing in English class. Then, help him identify a desired goal, and work to get him to see the gap that exists between his current behavior and achieving that goal. In this example, you can get him to acknowledge his goal of going to a great college, and how his lack of effort in math may hinder this. For example you might say, “You want to get into Ohio State; they are pretty competitive, and your math grade will matter. Do you think you could put a similar effort into math, even though I know you don’t like it that well?” He may very well start to see your point, because you have nicely helped him identify his own desire to go to a good school, and how changing his effort in math will bridge the gap between his current reality and his goal. Most people respond better to this than a “you better do better in math or you are grounded!” threat.
3. Use the Language of Observation, Not Judgment
Have you ever been called “stupid?” “Lazy?” When you get called these names, how do you respond to them? You immediately change your ways and listen to the person calling you these names, right? Oh wait…you don’t.
Most of us get defensive and shut down when we are judged. Even if the judgment rings true enough, we rarely respond to the language of judgment. Yet, most of us grew up receiving it and don’t know any other way to criticize someone.
Instead of the language of judgment, I prefer the language of observation. I should give credit to Marshall Rosenberg here, author of Non-Violent Communication, as this concept is an important part of that communication method.
To observe means to stick to the facts of a situation versus labeling someone. Let me give you some examples:
Judgement: You are stupid and lazy and can’t even pass a basic math class!
Observation: Your mom and I are concerned that you are failing math class.
Judgment: You are just out of control and a little criminal!
Observation: I am unhappy that you vandalized that statue.
Judgment: Can’t you do anything right? Are you an idiot?
Observation: This is the third time you have gotten in trouble for talking back to your teacher, and I am getting frustrated.
Sticking to the facts and observing will keep your child’s defenses down and allow you to calmly relate to them. Instead of you accusing them of vague personality flaws (such as “stupidity”), name-calling (“idiot”), or exaggerating (“can’t you do anything right?”), you will be listing actual, observable things they have done that can be identified and discussed to then be corrected.
This may not solve all of your issues with your teen, but most problems tend to be solved by decent and proactive communication. If you improve your communication with your kids, you will find that this improvement will spill over to other areas of your life, since effective communication is so important.