“You’re wearing that?” I can still hear my mother asking me that question, laughter lurking in her tone, at my attempt at fashion while a teenager. Usually, we got along fairly well as I navigated the teen years, but occasionally, she would say the very wrong thing and, um... I wouldn’t react well at all.
Now with a young teen of my own, I am learning firsthand that how we as parents interact with our teenagers can either help or hinder our relationship. While some teens will take offense to anything a parent does or says, most of the time, we have more power than we realize in setting the tone of our relationship with our teenage children.
We all know that teens can be prickly, sassy, sarcastic, frustrating and disrespectful, but we should also keep in mind that they are loving, independent, generous, thoughtful and kind. Words have a powerful influence on which type of teen they will be in any given moment. For all of the following phrases or questions, it’s wise for parents to think about what their goal is—what are they trying to accomplish by saying that to their teen. Focusing on the desired outcome rather than the moment at hand can help us modulate our speech in a more edifying and effective way.
Here are seven things a parent should try to never say to a teen—and what we can say instead.
1. “You’re not leaving the house wearing that!” While my mother never said those exact words, I know many parents who have—and it rarely goes over well with a teenager. Usually, when a parent utters that phrase, the goal is to have the teen modify or change their outfit because of the literal words on the t-shirt or amount of flesh revealed by the cut. A better response when your teen wears something you deem inappropriate is “That doesn’t fit in with our family dress code.”
2. “I’ll do that for you.” Teens need to be free to figure out how to do tasks themselves as much as possible in order to build their confidence when learning new skills. “If parents do for teens what teens are capable of learning how to do themselves, they discourage teens from taking the risks necessary to grow,” pointed out Crosswalk.com contributing writer Whitney Hopler. Instead, she recommended saying “I’ll be here to answer your questions while you try it yourself.”
3. “I know you hate me right now.” Hate is a very strong word with negative connotations. No one wants to be accused of being the kind of person who could hate someone, and teens are very easily offended and defensive. “Telling my teenager I know she hates me tells her I think she is the kind of person who could hate her own mother, which then offends her (as well it might),” said Elizabeth Spencer of Battle Creek, Michigan. “Many parents of teenagers—including those in healthy, loving, close, respectful relationships—are well acquainted with occasional feelings of intense dislike from those offspring.” Instead, Spencer suggested saying, “I understand you don’t like me very much right now” or “I’m feeling like you’re very upset with me right now.”
4. “If you do that one more time, you’ll be grounded until you turn 18.” Variations of this empty threat have been uttered by parents for years. The problem is, we can’t enforce such a dictate. Plus, if we’re honest, it’s a phrase usually shouted in a fit of anger. When we’re mad, we should simply walk away to collect our thoughts (and our temper!) before returning to dole out any consequences for misbehavior. Try saying instead, “We’ll discuss this later.”
5. “You shouldn’t do it that way.” We sometimes forget that there’s more than one way to do something, such as cleaning, or mowing the grass, or studying for at test. “If parents try to control teens according to the parents’ personal preferences, they prevent teens from fully following where God leads them, which may not reflect what the parents want, but will reflect what God wants,” said Hopler. Rather, parents should step back and let a teen accomplish the task the way he wants to—even if that way doesn’t work out. A better response would be, “I’m glad you’re doing X” or “Thank you for doing X.”
6. “You can’t go out with [insert friend name].” As parents, we’re naturally older and wiser than our teens—and that means we can usually spot a bad apple when we see or meet them. But forbidding contact with someone you don’t approve of is generally a recipe for sneaking around and/or blatantly hanging out with that person. Instead, invite the person over to your house to hang out, have dinner and spend time with your teen under your supervision. Also, telling your teen that “I’m holding you personally responsible for any wrongdoing committed when you were with that friend(s)” will give them the freedom to make their own choices along with the responsibility to make the right ones.
7. “Why do you need to sleep so late every weekend?” While it can be frustrating to have a teenager roll out of bed close to noon on a Saturday morning, numerous studies have shown that teens need to sleep. “The traditional school is not kind to them during the week,” said Spencer. She tends to tell her two teens, “Sleep as late as you can and enjoy it” when family and student obligations allow.
Overall, asking more questions than delivering lectures or statements work best when communicating with teenagers. As one mom of teen girls put it, “Asking questions gave me time to think and process, while it also helped our girls figure out how to discuss various situations. With one daughter, she wasn’t going to go along with the ‘right’ answer if it wasn’t one she had thought of, so it was challenging to come up with wise questions that would help her to think in the right direction.”
A certified Leadership Parenting Coach,™ Sarah Hamaker has written Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace. Her blogs on parenting have appeared in The Washington Post’s On Parenting, and she’s a frequent contributor to Crosswalk.com. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.parentcoachnova.com and follow her on Twitter @parentcoachnova.
Publication date: June 28, 2016