Greasing The Wheels of Communication With Teens

When parents find teens clamming up, it helps to zero in on the real problem

As the mother of three teenagers, Pat Graf of Pekin, Ill., knows about teenage conversation. She also knows about teenage silence.

When her twin daughters were teens, Mrs. Graf says, "They came home from school and shared what happened during the day with me." Now those daughters are college students, and the Grafs' 14-year-old son, Nick, is the resident teenager. Conversations have taken a different approach. "I have to pull everything out of my son," Graf explains. "Unless I ask a direct question, I'm not going to learn anything."

For many teenagers striving for independence, such reticence has long been part of growing up. But in the eyes of teachers, parents, and social workers, communication between generations has become more important as family structures have changed and as issues such as sex, drugs, and juvenile crime affect ever-younger students. While many parents dread the teen years, numerous experts say parents and teens can maintain good relationships.

Some parents, eager to hone communication skills, attend workshops with titles such as "Parenting Your Teenager" and "Surviving Adolescence," offered by schools and service agencies. Others read books on communicating effectively. Still others, like Graf and her husband, devise their own ways of staying connected.

"We try very hard to keep the lines of communication open," says Graf, a kindergarten teacher. "We make a real effort to have dinner together every evening. With kids going in many different directions, it's hard. Some nights we eat as early as 5 and some nights as late as 8."

Conversation usually centers around school. Nick gets home an hour before Graf returns from work. Graf says dinner provides a good opportunity to ask casually where Nick went after school and what friends he saw. "We're just getting into boy-girl issues," she says. "Time will tell how we fare with that."

Exchanges like these are too rare, according to Nancy Rubin, a high school teacher in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of "Ask Me If I Care: Voices From an American High School" (Ten Speed Press). In the Social Living classes she teaches, Ms. Rubin says, "I hear everything. Some students will say that their mother is their best friend. But for the most part, there's not a whole lot of communication going on, which is typical for teens."

Rubin adds, "So many of these kids can't talk with their parents. Often the parent has his or her own problems. Kids will say, 'If I tell my mother, she'll kill me.' On the positive side, I definitely hear about some beautiful things, but unfortunately, it's not as much as you'd like."

Lynn Margolis of Newton, Mass., a social worker and the mother of two teenage daughters, urges parents to start early to establish good patterns of communication. She and Susan O'Connell, another social worker, conduct workshops for parents of 10-to-14-year-olds, focusing on communication and problem-solving skills.

"Parents of preadolescents are very concerned that their children are beginning to break away from them," Ms. Margolis says. "Especially parents who have very close relations with their children are mystified. They ask, 'Why don't they talk to me anymore? Why can't I say anything to them anymore?'"

Sometimes, Margolis says, a child will say something, and a parent will "roadblock" them by being sarcastic or judgmental. "That's the end of the dialogue - the kid's outta there. A lot of parents lose sight of what the problem is. Their feelings get intertwined."

Margie Bogdanow, co-director of Parenting Resource Associates in Lexington, Mass., defines good communication as "listening, clarifying questions, brainstorming solutions, and not assuming one person knows what somebody else should do."

Ms. Bogdanow, the mother of three, observes that many people assume it is teens, not parents, who act confrontational. But a study last year of parent-child interaction, she says, found that parents "were in many cases the ones who started out the interaction negatively: 'Hi, your room is a mess.' " Parents, she cautions, "really need to think before they speak. You don't want teens to feel that every time they walk in the house they'll be blasted for something."

Common issues of contention include bedrooms, telephones, curfews, social activities, and homework.

"To the degree possible, you should let kids deal with their rooms in the way in which they're comfortable," Bogdanow says. Telephones, she adds, offer teens "a safe way to talk about things that in person are too scary." Telephone limits should be established calmly, she adds, perhaps during a family meeting.

Family meetings can provide a neutral way to discuss issues. "It's a vehicle for conversation about routine events other than when people are angry or there's been a problem," says Julie Colpitts, a director at Concord-Assabet Family and Adolescent Services in Concord, Mass.

Ms. Colpitts describes negotiations between adolescents and parents as "a very fluid kind of dance." She encourages "establishing a rhythm where you can let the child say things even if they're against what you believe in or seem outrageous. Sometimes the most powerful thing to do is just be quiet."

Conversation represents only one way of nurturing relationships. "Communication doesn't just mean saying, 'I love you, I love you, I love you,'" says John Bencivenga, a high school guidance counselor in West Islip, N.Y. "You also do things with kids. You share with your kids."

To make their home welcoming to their 12-year-old son and his friends, Mr. Bencivenga and his wife, Marion, built a basketball court in the backyard. He sees this as a way of "being involved with your kids - not just being there. The mutual joy of doing things together - that's the key." Another key: "Always let your kid know he can talk to you about anything."

Bencivenga observes that "kids act out many times. They're saying, 'At least notice that I'm alive. Discipline me, punish me.' So many kids are growing up in a void."

Sometimes that void can result from demanding schedules. In her workshops on "Communicating With Your Difficult Adolescent," parents tell Colpitts, "I just don't want to hear about [a problem]. I don't have time for it." But, she adds, "The adolescents hear that, and they get mad and they get scared."

She continues, "What I hear lots of times is the loneliness of the adolescent. Your kids need you and want you and love you just as much now as they did when they were cuddly and more able to show it. They need it in different ways, but they need it. "

Parents also should establish ties with their children's schools. Last year a report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development found that parents become less involved when children enter middle school. Knowing what is happening at school, Bogdanow says, helps parents keep relationships smooth at home.

Parents can also help by being present during teen gatherings at home, Bogdanow says. Teens need to know that parents are there, she says, but not in an "in-your-face" way.

Bogdanow offers a final suggestion: "Make sure you find the good things in your teenager and let them know you notice. Find things to be positive about. Teenagers are great. They have such amazing ideas about the world, and so many hopes."

Teachers, social workers, and parents offer perspectives on keeping communication open between teenagers and parents:

''I recently asked my students, "If you could tell your parents something, what would it be?" They said, "Tell parents their kids should come first." A lot of kids feel that they're pretty far down on the list - that they come after their parents' jobs or their parents' social life or their parents' time at the gym.'' -- Nancy Rubin, high school teacher, Berkeley, Calif.

''Think about what you were like as an adolescent, and what communication was like. How did your parents talk to you? What worked, and what made you upset? What do you consciously want to repeat or change?''

-- Julie Colpitts, director, Concord-Assabet Family and Adolescent Services, Concord, Mass.

''A lot of times parents think a teenager's problem is the parent's problem. Often it's not. Think about whose problem is it first. If there's a conflict, define the problem and then work toward solving it.'' -- Lynn Margolis, social worker and parent, Newton, Mass.

''As kids become teenagers, it's often not useful for parents to say, "Because I said so," or "I think you should do this."

'Breaking things down into very small pieces helps. Narrow down the disagreement and ask, What is the problem here?'' -- Margie Bogdanow, co-director, Parenting Resource Associates, Lexington, Mass.

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