Why these “words for teenagers” won’t work

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This text appeared several times on my timeline on facebook lately and I decided to write an extended response to it, especially because I was surprised by the overly positive and agreeing responses from parents. I can’t stop but think that if I were a teenager, I would feel judged and rejected and treated like a baby.

I understand that parents can relate to the problem mentioned in this text, because their children may have said the same thing to them, or they may act like the teenagers described in this article.

These parents consider their teenagers (or pre-teens) as inaccessible, like if all of a sudden, their children turn into people they can’t communicate with (anymore). They can’t “reach” them anymore, and they don’t understand what is going on and blame the miscommunication and misunderstandings on puberty.

In reality, we all go through these kind of phases since we’re babies. We constantly change the way we communicate and most of the time we, as parents, adapt to the different phases our children go through and usually find a way to keep communication going.

What causes the alienation many parents or adults feel while talking with teenagers then? I think the main reason for this is that they keep on treating teenagers as “children”, as “non responsible” beings and try to make them do things without questioning. Lead by a general assumption (and expectation!) that “children must do what they are told”, they miss to understand that their most important task is to help children understand the world and its rules first in order to be able to react and act appropriately. Many parents do this by depicting the world and using explanatory words.

In this article, the principal considers himself “ok” and the teenagers as “not ok”. He feels good about himself and sees the teenagers as damaged or less than, which is not healthy. In all the suggestions he gives, he maintains his authority role*, and by telling the teenagers to “go home, mow the lawn” etc., he treats them like children. Interestingly, what he really wants from them is to act as adults as result. But this won’t happen.

This kind of communication will not lead to the desired consequences. The teenagers will be resistant and will not do what they’re told. – In fact, by telling them what to do, we don’t help them to reflect on the situation and come up with a solution by themselves. People who are told to do something, no matter if they are teenagers or adults – would react with resistance and rejection. If we, as adults, are told to do something without the time to questioning it and without having the chance to test our skills, our spontaneous reaction will be to refuse and most probably we will refuse to do it – the only exception for this would be an emergency: in this case we would do what the autority tells us without questioning, i.e. “jump out of the window” (if there’s a safety net underneath, of course…).

The most natural way for our children to learn is through experience. If we tell our childern to walk, they will understand what we’re talking about, but will need to practice first. If we tell them about a country, an experience (a smell, a taste etc.) they will hear what we say, but they will only be able to fully comprehend it if they experience it. Of course, we can’t make them experience everything, but the life skills mentioned in this text can easily be experienced in our daily life. By doing chores, our children not only learn how to do them, but they also learn that they contribute to our life as a family, that they have a say and that their contribution is valuable for the family, their micro-society.

Instead of what the principal suggests in this article, the parent or adult should wonder why the teenager hasn’t the chance to be actively involved in society. Maybe he lives in a flat – so, no lawn to mow – or his parents don’t let him wash the windows etc.

When a teenager says “what can we do, where can we go?”, this is not (only) a complaint like “I don’t know what to do”, “I’m bored” etc., but it’s their way to say “I don’t have any opportunity to contribute to society”, “I feel useless”, “I feel if everything I do is senseless” etc.. What he really says is: “please tell me that I’m able to contribute, that I’m worth to be trusted”.

What the principal adds later – “stop being a cry baby” – doesn’t help either. If we want our children to act like responsible persons, we need to talk to them in a way that tells them that we believe they actually are able to do so.

We wouldn’t say to a person we respect and that we consider responsible, “stop being a cry baby”. We would surely use other words. We would ask what makes this person believe she’s not contributing or being involved enough, and then help her to become more self-confident.

Saying “stop being a cry baby” makes people feel irresponsible and “babies”. By adding “start behaving like a responsible person, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone and not a wishbone”, what the principal in this text really says is: “I think you’re irrresponsible, you live in a dream world (i.e. you’re really not able to face this world!) and you don’t have any backbone”.

Interestingly what then follows in this text sounds quite ironic, especially because of the context: “You are important and you are needed” and “Someday is now and somebody is you”. – These are two very powerful sentences, but in this context, they are emptied of their semantic meaning. I certainly wouldn’t believe someone telling me that after having told me that I have no backbone and that I’m a baby…


The answer is in the right code

When talking to others, no matter if they are teenagers or not, we need to access and use their code. The only way to access it is to listen and understand by asking questions. Therefore, when someone tells us “what can we do, where can we go”, we need to find out what makes them think they are not involved already and what their needs and worries are. We may help them find an answer by themselves and only if they ask for it, we can suggest some solutions.

And if we really want to connect with our teenagers, we need to respect them and treat them like capable young adults we want them to be (or become).


* Cfr. The three alter ego states by Eric Berne: parent, adult, child (i.e. Transactional Analysis)

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