The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 11, 2008


Rick Irving offers tips on how to talk with your teens

Last week, licensed social worker Rick Irving spoke to a crowd at the CCHS library about setting limits for your adolescent. The talk focused on how to allow your teenager to experience increasing independence while at the same time guarding his/her safety.

Irving has an easy style. With straight-talk, practicality and humor, he delivered concrete strategies and advice, warning of the many pitfalls, or “traps” as he called them, that parents fall into. With many examples he tried to lead parents through successful communications with their teens.

One of Irving’s most important messages to parents is, “You need to be consistent and stick to your limits.” He also highly recommended that parents remain calm.

One trap to avoid is getting into an escalating argument with your teen. Irving recommended “Don’t make it an ‘I’ versus ‘you’ battle.” He asks parents to think about what statement they are throwing at their teen. If the parent says, “This is my house and I make the rules, not you,” what response does the parent expect? He asks, “Will you get the response you want?” He thinks not, adding, “The trick is to only say [your arguments] once. The longer you talk, the less they listen.”

Stay on topic

Irving pointed out that teens are very good at changing the subject. When the parent says, “You need to clean your room,” the teen replies, “Why are you always yelling at me?” He strongly advises not to fall into this trap. “Don’t take the bait, stay on topic.” He tells parents, “You should reply in an even voice, ‘We’ll talk about yelling after you clean your room.’” When the teen then says, “You never yell at [his sister’s name],” again Irving advises, still in a calm voice, “We’ll talk about your sister after you clean your room.” He adds that the parent should disengage from the discussion first. “Think of any excuse. Look at your watch and say, ‘Oh, I have to check on the [put in any noun, such as the vacuum cleaner] right now. I have to go!’ And rush out the door.” If the teen should ask, “Are you walking out on me?” always reply, “I’ll be back!” This gives each party space without the teen feeling rejected.

Another communication pitfall occurs when teens have a problem and project it onto their parent. The parent may be in a good mood and the teen may come over and start a conversation in an angry tone. Irving tells parents to keep their cool and reply calmly. Later the time may be right to suggest to your teen that you were not the cause of his/her distress.

Dive bomb suggestions

Irving had an unorthodox recommendation to use with a non-communicative teen. He called it “dive bomb suggestions.” When you see your teen sitting on the couch, he said, “Don’t go sit beside them and bring up a subject.” Instead, walk in, preferably behind him, state your point – such as, “If you talked nicer to me, you might get better results” – and then walk out of the room. The teen does not need to argue with you because he will not lose face; you have left the room. Irving says another great place for a conversation is in the car. “There is no eye contact. This lowers the intensity of the conversation.”

Irving gave additional insights into the teenage mind. “They absolutely need us, and they absolutely hate that.” They want to be independent.

Irving says that school can be a minefield for students all day, as they worry about making fools of themselves with every word they might utter. “They feel embarrassment quite quickly…They lack self-confidence. They have a fear that others will think, ‘I am silly.’” He cautioned parents not to try to minimize the teens’ distress. “By saying ‘It’s not such a big deal,’ the message they hear is, ‘You think I’m foolish or silly for being so upset by this.’”

Set the tone

Irving also focused on the parent’s tone of voice. He urged parents, “Look at your own style of communication. The more judgmental you are, the more conflict there will be. Your rate of speech could sound tense or accusatory.” Irving said kids have a different definition of yelling than adults. “They don’t hear ‘the worry,’ they hear ‘the mad’ in our voices.”

Sometimes teenagers are looking for conflict. They are more invested in the argument then they are in the solution. In continuing to argue, they can avoid whatever task they are supposed to be performing. The conflict is also a mechanism for the separation of the child from the parent.

Irving cautioned parents about the pitfalls in using the word “trust.” He advised not to use it, or use it very carefully. If your teenager says something like, “Don’t you trust me?” Irving says to get “trust” out of the argument. For example, he suggests saying, “It’s not about trust; it’s about you getting sleep. Or it’s about your health.” Irving said, “They use ‘trust’ as a weapon, not as a value.”

No “lifeboat promises”

When setting punishment, Irving strongly recommends setting a punishment you can stick to. If a parent is going to take away a privilege, do it for a day or a few days, not forever. “Don’t make lifeboat promises.” If possible, connect the punishment to the crime. If the teen didn’t wear a bike helmet, take away the bike for a few days and then tell the teen to try again. Irving vehemently told parents to stay away from issuing warnings. He said to follow through on the punishment. If a teen feels she can avoid the punishment by sounding sincere, or crying or making a scene, she’ll play that card again and again to get whatever she wants.

A parent asked if she should increase the punishment if the teenager mouths off about the punishment. Irving advised not to increase the punishment because “you muddy things up by escalating the punishment.” The teen should be clear on what he or she did wrong and what price must be paid for that. He added not to use sarcasm on teens even though they use it on parents. “It’s a hidden knife. It cheapens the words.”

Irving had other points about arguments. Don’t set a limit in the heat of the battle. Say something like “I will go think about what to do about this behavior.” He adds, “When they are screaming, don’t take the bait.”

“Pick your battles” was another theme. He said parents should identify whether teenagers’ actions are dangerous or just dumb. He queried the crowd asking if their teenagers want to dye their hair green or is their room a mess? Or, are they participating in activities that could harm them physically or mentally? He told the parents the latter is much more serious and that’s where a parent needs to press. For hair-dying, he suggested to parents to tell them: “The principal will notice you more, and how will you look for a college interview?”

Permanent consequences

Irving thought there was certainly one message to get through to teens. “There are some consequences that can not be undone.” Teens make choices. He pointed out, “If you drink and drive, you could end up killing someone that way. On every application for the rest of your life, there will be two questions that must be answered. Have you ever had your license suspended? And, have you ever been convicted?” He encouraged parents to talk to their teens about these risks and consequences.

Irving ended the lecture with this note. As parents, our commitment should be to kids’ development and learning limits so they grow up to be responsible adults. Our job is not to make them happy. “Happiness and self-esteem have very little to do with one another.” So set limits and stick to your guns.

The lecture was offered by the CCHS Parents Association in collaboration with the Center for Parents and Teachers. The center is an organization funded by the Concord Carlisle Community Chest. ∆

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