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Don't Look 'Em in the Eyes!

Any parent can be forgiven for thinking that communicating with a teenager can be like talking to a wall!

Or, that it can require as much caution as a hostage negotiator. To be honest, there have been conversations in my house that have left me thinking ‘What The Actual…?!’ Eye-rolls, grunts, door slams, silent treatment, glares and ‘wot eva’ are part and parcel of teen communication are they not?

It is enough to do your head in sometimes!

“But surely, if I approach communicating with my teens in a mature and responsible fashion, all that drama can be avoided?” asked one of my dearest friends over lunch one day. I tried (unsuccessfully) to hide my smirk and raised eyebrow by raising a glass of wine to my lips, drowning out the comment I wanted to make mid gulp. I love her optimism, as delusional as it can be. She chose to ignore my inaudible response and continued.

“If I use active listening techniques, I should be able to have a decent conversation with my teen at any time!” she insisted. “A grown-up conversation.”

Yeah sure huni. Let me share with you why that won’t work, straight away at least.

The definition of Teenager is the stage between child and adult. As in they not quite adults yet. So why is it such a surprise to so many of us when adult concepts, concepts like active listening don’t work. Many of us well intentioned parents go gung-ho into implementing key elements of active listening without any consideration that their teen is not quite there yet. Let me share an example.

We all know maintaining eye contact is a key indicator that, as a listener, we are engaged and the speaker has our full attention. Try doing that with a teen and within moments you will get shut-down! It is not a stretch of the imagination to work out why. The level of maturity to be able to hold someone’s gaze without feeling threatened or intimidated is beyond most teens. A teenager, especially one who may be emotional at the time (is there ever one that isn’t?) can easily misinterpret a held gaze as aggressive, threatening or accusational. An immediate conversation shut down. Conversation ender and controversy invitation right there!

But eye contact is something you can nurture and support them (as is our role as parents) to understand that is a positive thing. It takes time and it can be one of those one-step-forward-one-step-back things, depending on the emotional levels of the situation.

It is up to us as the parents to gauge the sensitivity of a situation and assess whether maintaining eye contact will be beneficial or detrimental to what your teen is communicating at that point in time. Please, please, please do not choose a situation that is high stress to ‘teach’ unless it is done with genuine care and consideration.

An awkward conversation is far better had in the car with just the two of you. Some of the best conversations you can have with a teen is in the car compliments of minimal eye contact. At home? Try offering a cuppa, then spend a fair amount of time staring into said cuppa. Never assume that your teen is lying to you if they won’t look at you (Look at me Kimmie!), it could just be a really ‘awkies’ thing they are trying to tell you. Be thankful they ARE trying to tell you!

Build up eye contact over time to show that it is not a bad thing and that it is something that communicates trust. As parents we strive for our teens to tell us the truth or at least be able to pick it when they are not. The effort you put into building trust for them to tell you ‘stuff’ is rewarded by being able to accurately pick when they are talking shit. When they CAN look you in the eye and tell you all sorts of things will be the time that you will get far more out of conversation than you ever thought possible. (and most of the time, they don’t even realize they have told you more than they wanted!)

The gently gently approach to introducing eye contact works very well with the ‘Shut Up and Listen’ technique. More on that one later!

If you wish to know more about improving communication with teens, then check out Talking Teens E-Course #10Days2TeenTalk

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