Trying to keep the conversation alive with a moody teen?
Having a close relationship with your young child or teen is something most of us parents are aiming for. At the core of any relationship is communication — the ideal is having a child who feels comfortable truthfully speaking to you about their friends, their problems and what’s going on in their life. So how do you foster this open communication? We spoke to mums in Singapore about how they tackle chats (and silences) with their teens, and also got tips from experts on how to nurture great relationships with your kids so that they are happy to come to you to tell you what they are feeling. Plus: why all kids lie… and how to handle it!
How do you keep an open dialogue with your teen?
Observing, listening and being there all help with good communication with a young child, but what happens when your child gets older and starts to withdraw?
Amy*, mother to a 13-year-old says “My son is quite reserved and I never push him to tell me things, but make sure he knows that if he needs or wants to talk my husband or me, we are always there to listen to him, no matter what. I chat to my son every night before he goes to sleep, as he tends to be more relaxed and receptive and will often mention things about his day, concerns or excitements etc then. If he wants to say nothing, then I leave it at. He knows we are always here for him.”
This approach of respecting your child’s privacy is reiterated by Irena Constantin, Occupational Educational Psychologist at Scott Psychological Services. Irena says parents should “Respect boundaries. Teenagers need ‘privacy’ and ‘autonomy’. Give and provide them the space needed. It’s important for their own development and to become independent.”
Irena continues, “Teenagers are going (physically and mentally) through a period of transformation which makes them often self-absorbed and moody. Understanding these changes helps parents react more tolerantly towards their kids behaviour.” Irena encourages parents to “Help your child to become an independent and responsible adult during that ‘transition’ time. Teenagers are often insecure and through their changes can also get irritated during that period. Guidance and structure will help them. As the parent, act as their ‘mentor’ rather than trying to be their ‘best friend.”
Wei Ling*, mother to a 16-year-old says about her son:
“We’ve told him we’re open to discuss anything with him, including relationships, sex, any serious mistakes he has made etc. I try to make myself available whenever he feels the need to talk because discussions at that age often come out of the blue. I drop whatever it is I’m doing to listen to him. I ask him what he expects from me from our discussion, because I’ve realised that giving him advice when he was not prepared to take it on often resulted in frustrations on both sides. I try to look at things from his perspective and empathise with his feelings, even if not necessarily agreeing to his requests.“
Start really listening!
“Talk less and listen more” is a top tip of Irena’s. “The period where your child was smaller and you had to ‘raise’ it up by talking is now coming to an end. Change your modus from talking to listening! It gives you a chance to hear their own ideas and increases mutually respect. Be always a ‘safe’ and reliable person for your child to talk to – even if you disagree on some of the matters.”
Being a safe reliable person for your child to come to is at the heart of the best selling book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by psychotherapist and agony aunt Philippa Perry. This highly recommended read is all about fostering good communication with your baby, young child and also teen. Perry talks about being a safe ‘container’ for your child’s emotions and feelings (something psychotherapists do for their clients). She also encourages parents not to get overwhelmed by their children’s emotions, otherwise children will not feel they can safely share everything with you.
Perry talks about how important it is to listen to your kids and take them seriously – looking for the feelings behind their communication and behaviour without admonishing them for their emotions. Perry puts it bluntly “It’s important that children feel they can tell you the truth, that all their feelings will be accepted, even those attitudes you find inconvenient. If you are not a safe person to talk to who can they turn to when they are being bullied at school for example or feel spooked by the sexual overtones of their judo instructor?”
What should you do if your teen lies to you?
“All children lie” says Perry in her book. Us parents do, too (remember saying how you loved your friend’s gift when in fact you re-gifted it immediately because you knew you’d never use it?). Perry says it is very common for children to lie (and we shouldn’t treat it like the biggest sin in the world with our kids, because on the occasion that they do lie, not overreacting will keep the lines of communication open.
Perry goes on to explain all the reasons children might lie (including it being a developmental stage for younger kids, to avoid punishment if a child is in a harsh punitive environment, to create some private space as teens forge their separate identity or to communicate a feeling). If a child lies, Perry advises to look for the reason and feelings behind the lie, and if you understand and validate those feelings you can then work together to find more acceptable ways of expressing themselves and their needs.
Irena recommends parents “Stay solution-oriented rather than problem-oriented. Stop nagging and discuss options and solutions for next time so your child is equipped with better alternatives” to express themselves.
If your child or teen repeatedly refuses to discuss anything that is troubling them (especially if there have been significant changes in their life), becomes isolated or aggressive towards you and the environment (school, friends, teachers etc.), or if you both would like help to communicate better, there’s always the option for a session with a counsellor (individual or as a family).
Madeleine* a mother of a teen in Singapore shares
“Last year, things were very strained between me and my husband and we were struggling with our relationship. Concerned with the effect on our daughter, I asked her if she would like to chat with someone confidentially about her feelings regarding what was going on. The counselling sessions empowered my child, as the therapist gave her coping skills to deal with various scenarios and to help her handle issues concerning becoming a teenager.”
Use humour to re-bond with your teen
As a parent you can’t always get it right, and if you and your teen argue or aren’t communicating as well as you would like, Irena says you can use humour to reconnect. “It’s hard sometimes for parents raising their teenagers. Don’t forget your humour! It’s a way of re-bonding and a great tool for de-stress.” Indeed, Perry herself used humour to reconnect with her teen after an argument about her teen lying about smoking – she baked a pie and cut out “Smoking Kills’ into the crust, which diffused the situation and allowed her to reconnect with her teen and chat it out. She didn’t approve of her teen’s lie or behaviour, but she kept the lines of communication open with her teen. And that’s the important thing, making sure you repair any ruptures with your children so that you can keep those lines of communication open for a closer, loving relationship.
- The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry
- We Need to Talk – a straight-talking guide to raising resilient teens by Ian Williamson
- How to Talk so Teens Will Listen & Listen so Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
Many thanks to the mums living in Singapore who met with us to contribute their views on parenting a teen. *Their names have been changed to protect their privacy. Thanks as well to Ms. Irena Constantin, Occupational & Educational Psychologist at Scott Psychological Services for her invaluable expert advice.