Serious and productive conversation with a teenager is hard to come by. Most parents find their son or daughter an illusive prey not easily cornered and not easily impressed.

This resistant attitude has a history, of course. “We need to talk” has not been an introduction to, “I really like the clever way you criticize your brother!” Teens learn the signals and parents have reputations.

In the rushed schedule we all have these days, it’s easy to send the message, “And while I’m thinking about you, another thing I don’t like is …”

The hard fact is: it takes time to do more than list complaints and give instructions.

Here’s one strategy that may allow a more two-way conversation. Adults are very good talkers. We have decades of practice translating thoughts, feelings, and reactions quickly into words. Children, even smart-mouth teenagers, are less practiced and, in fast conversation, they often lose out. So first of all, deliberately slow your pace so they can slow their’s. Moments of silence are not bad, and, anyway, family conversation is not a good competitive sport.

Watch your signals: folding your arms, getting louder, and turning away all have their messages.

Avoid the “Always the Critic” habit and make sure your “liking” shows through. Many parents have told me, “As far as my own parents are concerned, I always felt I was never quite good enough.”

Here are some cautions parents have taught me.

  1. Children and teens look first for what the conversation says about them personally. We parents thought the subject was the important part. “He always takes things so personally.” is the common complaint. Keep the subject on a third person basis as much as possible as you would with an adult. Use “it” and “what” instead of “you.”
  2. Avoid the “quick fix” temptation, the real subject may not have come up yet. “Why don’t you…” “You should try…” “Don’t be so…” all have the potential of closing a conversation. They also indicate a superior position and may be offensive. If you tell me you had trouble getting to work, and I tell you to try another route and  start earlier, you think, “What nerve!” You just wanted to gripe a little and I turned it into a driving lesson! A real conversation stopper.
  3. Use reflective statements occasionally. Often a teen’s first remarks are only an expression of feelings and may be short on facts. A reflective reaction is sympathetic and says you’re listening.

Teen: “What a crummy math teacher.”

Mom: “Hard to get that stuff if it’s not clear.” Mom sides with her son by not falling into an argument (you shouldn’t talk about your teachers that way). She just agrees with the feeling, but says nothing new while waiting for more information.

Parents and their sons and daughters should be friends. Not equals, of course,  parents have to set the limits. And they won’t enjoy the same music or have all friends in common. But friends should bring out the best in us. When we meet, their attention sweeps the common ground between us looking for highlights. I return the compliment like a friendly searchlight; I seek the best in them.

Some have another focus. They overlook the good and zero in on the vulnerable spots. Teens will pull back, risk very little, and cover up.

Aim your searchlight carefully. What are you looking for?


Ashley is 11. Brad is 12. Both started Middle School this year. Both are worried and stressed with school and their parents try to understand and help as much as they can.

Mom says, “Middle school should be a great time in childhood. But today, TV shows play too many grown-up commercials and the stuff some of their friends put on their cell phones can add to the stress and the worry.”

Change comes fast after fifth grade. Brad and Ashley have new responsibilities for doing homework and scheduling their time. Less than a year ago they had one primary teacher and they were the oldest ones in their grade school. Suddenly they are the youngest, have many teachers, they worry about school, about homework, friends, clothes, and being cool.

They worry about themselves and, most of all, about being embarrassed–a worry that might have even occurred to them before.

Through the internet, CDs, internet, and TV, Ashley and Brad are learning about a bigger world of action, love, money, sex and world terrorists.

To help with such a confusion of ideas and values, a parent needs to understand what priorities their pre-teen might have at any moment. For instance, when going off to school, their biggest fear is likely to be that they’ll be embarrassed. They’re wondering: “Do I look OK? Am I cool? Am I liked?”

Here’s a good time for, “You look great. I like the way you are.”

It is not a good time for, “You look sloppy. You had better start acting differently.” bad messages at this moment can mean, “You are just not good enough.”

One of the great disadvantages of Middle School is that all of your friends are 11 to 13-year-olds! That could stress even the most level headed person. Parents can balance the impact of young and selfish friends by providing the positive support their school friends seldom give.

Brad and Ashley can feel self-conscious with friends or even with loving relatives. “Do I look good (my body is so funny)? What should I say (people never understand what I mean; will they laugh at me)? How should I react to a compliment (they may think I’m conceited or not cool) or a criticism (they may think I’m not tough)?”

Parents will need all their listening skills for these hectic years. That’s next week’s topic:

Since our President has suggested we arm teachers so they could shoot students who have gone crazy, we should think this through.

He means just the teachers. Of course students should not carry guns because they wouldn’t know when to use it and when not to use it.

My first concern is children, teenagers, and students copy better than they listen. And, it seems, they copy attitudes better than specific behaviors. If a teacher has a gun, it says that he or she would use it under some circumstances.

What circumstances? We know what we mean, but does the child-student? Certainly not at 5, 10?, or 15?

I think if we have more guns in school we will have more trouble with guns in schools.

Next week I will discuss imitation and how we parents can benefit from it in  raising our children and teenagers.


Physical punishment like spanking or slapping is only an option if the person is small enough. As the child gets older and bigger, parents who spank their children have to look for alternatives and by then the disadvantages have accumulated – the worst being that the child imitates the parent!

“Get Tough” advocates are on the wrong track for several reasons. First, a child faced with physical punishment becomes afraid. Learning slows and creativity stops because it’s too risky to stick your creative neck out if your mistakes will be punished!

Second, the hard-line approach will be, must be, inconsistent. A parent cannot, and should not, be consistent with punishment. Without the inconsistencies of warnings, threats and postponements, the rules are too inhuman. Yet with the “verbal decorations” the game and the power struggle begin.

Third, punishment is, of course, insulting. It belittles the child and lowers his value of himself. That’s why adults are so insulted if you try punishment on them! The child defends himself, attempts to escape, or tries to “win” the game. Parents can “win” the power struggle, but for every winner a loser is made! And losers eventually call in absent.

Other side effects may include anxious nail-biting, hair-twirling, and distractions that allow children to ignore parents such as video games and TV.

The adult alternatives are much better. For example, if you come to my house for dinner tonight and spill your drink at the table, you don’t expect me to say: “Hey! What do you think you’re doing? You’re so clumsy! Now pay attention to what you’re doing or I’ll send you home!”

What nerve! Treating a guest like a child! What happened to “making amends?” “The benefit of the doubt?” You expect me to belittle the problem.
“I’m sorry, do you have a towel?”
“No problem, I’ll take care of it…”
We deal with the mistake together as a third thing, not you, not me.

Ignoring is also an adult strategy, but it has to be used carefully. If a parent plans to ignore the bad behavior, the usual amount of acting up will no longer get the attention the child seeks, and he may escalate the volume! Parents may revert to punishment for this higher level and then return to the ignoring rule only to go back to punishment when the volume again reaches pain threshold.

We all know families where this power struggle is out of hand. To make the ignoring plan work, you need to emphasize the positive, giving praise when your child behaves well. Considering all the possible mistakes, a child isn’t much closer to good behavior by just being told, “Wrong!”

When bad behavior can’t be ignored, and making amends and hoping for opportunities for encouragement are not enough, try a time out. Most parents are familiar with the drill of putting the child on a chair or in his/her room for a little cooling off and isolation. This can work well if the time out is short so that threats, arguments, and other verbal decorations that often precede it can be kept to a minimum.

Many parents have found the act of starting the time-out, putting the child in the chair or room, is the effective part. Ten or 15 seconds is enough for two-year-olds, and one minute is enough for four, five, and six-year-olds. The message was sent when the prompt decision was made and we are more likely to act promptly and consistently when our consequence is moderate.

The best parental strategy will include praising the good behavior, ignoring the tolerable, and reacting with logical, mild, and consistent reprimands to the bad.

What is the top priority of most teenagers? Adults would put family, security and friends near the top, but most teens I know also assign high priorities to being liked, competent, and “cool.”

As for the greatest fears, teens usually put fear of embarrassment at the top of the list. Memories of our own teenage experiences include these same concerns – yearning to be liked and worried about embarrassment.

Look for chances to ease the fear and bolster the confidence. Even though you may find plenty to fix and teach your teen, keep to the positive and avoid the reputation of “picky, picky”.

Many parents have sadly told me: “As far as my own parents are concerned, I always felt I was never quite good enough.”

Positive comments to your teen will be your most effective influence. Let it never be said by your son or daughter, “I always felt I was never quite good enough.”

No. 1 for Parents

May 3, 2010 by rogermcintire | Edit

After nature’s basics, the most important, the primary duty of being a parent is finding things to like ! At first we do it automatically; Baby smiles and we say, “yEs.” But often in those first years we forget this basic of all they are going to learn.

“Do you like me?” Children are forever looking for this answer in Mom’s or Dad’s approval, disapproval or correction and it’s easy to overlook it. The approval answer is crucial to both friendship and parenting. As with good listening habits, liking habits are part of the overall parental attitude the children will take to heart.

Every time the kids do anything, parents react negatively or with support or indifference. What a parent likes and doesn’t like about what’s going on is constantly expressed. We parents know the bad behaviors well but we are less specific about the good.

Mom: “Leave the baby alone, Nathan”

Nathan: “I was just going to pat him.”

Now Mom has a choice. She could say, “I know what you were going to do. Now just stay away, YOU will wake him!” Or she could say,”I like to pat him too, but IT will wake him and he’s tired.”

She has the same choice when the mistake is already done: (Nathan drops his jelly sandwich.) She could say, “YOU are so messy! Look what YOU did!” Or she could say, “Oh, look WHAT happened! Better pick it up and get a paper towel.”

If Mom goes with her first impulse, she emphasizes Nathan, the person. YOU will wake him, YOU are messy! If she chooses her second choice in these examples, she emphasizes a situation that she and Nathan are dealing with together: IT will wake him. Look WHAT happened.

It won’t make a lot of difference to Nathan on these two occasions, but over the days and weeks, Nathan ends up with a very different message about himself, and a very different relationship with Mom.

Many of us had a good mother like Nathan’s. Very concerned, always carefully watching, correcting, often lecturing. But Nathan was frequently disagreeable and angry. When I asked Nathan’s mom for examples of Nathan’s good behavior, she had trouble getting started but finally came up with common ones such as “doing well in school” and “getting along with others.” I asked her to look for specifics of these during the next week and compliment Nathan when he showed success.

At our next meeting she reported an odd reaction after a compliment. Nathan said, “What’s the matter with you?” After another week of being on the lookout for chances to show a little liking, Nathan’s mom encountered another odd reaction:

Nathan asked, “Do you like me?”

“Nathan, I’m your Mother, I love you. Of course I like you,” Mom said.

“Wow,” said Nathan; already ten and just finding out that his mom not only loves him, she likes him!

Our teens are forever following the latest news about their celebrities and the glamorous lives they lead. Surely success and money would lead to lifelong happiness. But as the biographies come rolling out, we learn success and money just didn’t do it.

The great and near great often trip over their own egos and bad habits. They dabble in drugs or alcohol, and then get stuck in these very sticky habits.

Children start with things, “Mom, if I could just have that toy, I would be happy! It was on TV; everybody’s got one.”

Parents of teenagers will recognize this routine. There’s just one more thing and then…there’s just one more thing.

First it’s toys and things, then quickly it’s the money that would bring us the things. I suppose none of us ever completely leaves this “Money and Things Could Make Me Happy” stage, but by the time we reach our teens, our experience with the celebrity stories has added Stage Two: “If I Could Just Meet Mr. (or Ms.) Right, I Would Be Happy.”

But even when Mr. or Ms. Right comes along, he or she usually comes up short on making us completely happy. Most teens are infatuated with an idol for stage two but remain well-attached to the toys-and-money view of stage one.

Or, with the help of parents, they may discover Stage Three: Happiness is a do-it-yourself job. The control, in the end, belongs only to you. And it’s not the destination that brings happiness; it’s how you handle the trip. What priority do you give to things, people, and your own inner talents today?

Here’s where parents, grandparents, and other adults in the family can help by helping a son, daughter or grandchild in conversation that takes inventory of a child-teen’s successes and strengths: “What a talent you have for understanding these computers. Your mom and I need you around just to keep us out of trouble!” Or, “I heard the way you helped your friend Lisa with her homework. You are a good friend.”

Happiness is not achieved by more shopping or even by the right companion. It comes from satisfaction with what you are and what you are doing. Parents can help their children with this growth by reminding them of their talents, their good points and satisfying moments.

Dr. McIntire is the author of Teenagers and Parents: 12 Steps to a Better Relationship and Raising Good Kids in Tough Times. Comment here or go to http://www.ParentSuccess.com.