I was driving my 16-year-old daughter home from volleyball practice recently when she brought up a funny comment made by one of the guys she knows at school. Then she said, “Anna said he told her he was going to ask me to Homecoming.” I was thrilled she was sharing something like that, since she’s been pretty tight-lipped the last year. And also thrilled for her, since she’s never been asked to a school dance before, and I know it would mean a lot to her. So I smiled at her and said “Wow, that is fantastic, honey!” I promise that’s all I said. But you would have thought I had shot off fireworks or something, because my daughter got this horrified look on her face and said, “I knew you’d freak out if I told you. That’s why I don’t tell you anything!” But I did not overreact, and I’m a little irritated that she says this is why she can’t talk to me. What do I do?
– Baffled Mom
You showed an inkling of emotion in front of your teen? How dare you, Mom! If there is one thing we’ve learned over and over in our research it’s that almost any sort of emotional reaction can send teens into a tizzy. Ironically, this is precisely because they are the ones who are trying to deal with all sorts of emotions and they can’t handle ours too. In other words: anything other than a polite, ultra-calm listening face risks being seen as an overreaction.
As unfair as that seems to be, there’s good news here. In research from our national survey for my book, For Parents Only, 75% of teens indicated, “If I knew my parents wouldn’t freak out, I would really like to share certain things with them.” Statistically, it is highly likely that your daughter is thinking the same. So use subtle cues to signal “tell me more.” Listen calmly, with little visible emotion. A smile instead of a Starbucks-jacked, “Wow, that’s exciting!” An inquisitive eyebrow raised or a calm murmur to indicate, “Then what happened?” Or perhaps say, “That’s interesting,” instead of, “Oh my gosh! Then what happened?” If you feel yourself having any “bigger” reaction (whether negative or positive), try if at all possible to wait until you can share it very evenly.
Sure, there will be times when you have strong reactions, and yes, you’re the parent so there will be times when it would be entirely appropriate to show significant displeasure as part of discipline, for example. But constantly keep in mind: what is my big-picture goal here? If you ultimately want your daughter to feel able to share her life with you, then there will be at least some cases where you decide to pull back on the emotion (not the action or the discipline), in order to not shut down lines of communication with your child. I love the verse in Proverbs (Proverbs 15:1) that says, “A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.”
The most amazing thing we heard from teens and tweens was that if you can make a concerted effort to listen ultra-calmly — no matter how much you might be “freaking out” on the inside — you’ll hear so much more from your child. And honestly, these are the years that it is so important to show yourself to be a “safe” listener; someone who she feels able to talk to. Ultimately, you can’t make her share, but showing that you are there for her and that she can trust your reactions will make it much more likely that she will feel like confiding in you during the very years she needs you the most.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage, and her newest book, Through A Man’s Eyes. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.