When Talking Your Tween Or Teen, One Question Can Make A Big Difference

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I’m a decisive person, tending to pick-and-stick. I see a problem and I tackle it head-on, then move on. As a mom of four kids, ranging from a toddler to tweens, I don’t have a lot of time to think about what-should-I-do-to-make-this-situation-perfect in each and every circumstance.

This handle-it-ASAP attitude of mine can backfire when it comes to parenting though. When my tweens face a situation in which they have to make a decision, I want to be that Mama Bear who swoops in, gets the details, and tells them what to do. Problem solved–or so I believed.

My older kids are capable of solving their own problems, within reason. Perhaps I’m in denial that they’re maturing so I tend to take over when I shouldn’t. And sometimes when I’ve tried to wiggle my way into situations where I didn’t really belong, I have seen the look in my kids’ eyes—the look of disappointment.

A recent conversation I had with another mom has changed my mind when it comes to conversing with my older kids. This mom of two adult children was telling me how difficult it is to parent kids in their late teens and early twenties–especially when it comes to communication and each of them staying in their lane. They are technically grown-ups, but they’re often in the midst of hard life decisions regarding their education, their future careers, and their romantic relationships.

She told me that it’s difficult not to tell her kids what to do. To her, the solutions are glaringly evident, but to her kids, whose brains aren’t even fully developed yet, they’re confused, uncertain, and sometimes unwise. Yes, it’d be easy just to grab them by the shoulders, give them a loving shake, and tell them what’s up. But she doesn’t. She does this instead.

This more experienced mom told me that when her kids come to her and are struggling, she asks them one important question before they dive into the details. She looks them in the eye and says, “Do you want me to listen to you, or would you like me to listen and offer advice?”

She told me that more times than not, her kids reply that they want her to just listen. However, they usually end up dishing all the drama and then asking her what she thinks they should do. They value her opinion and experience. And the most important part? She’s not forcing it upon them unsolicited.

This makes total sense. Most of us loathe unsolicited advice from our nearest and dearest and from strangers. Their rude observations about the number of kids we choose to have, if we breast or bottle feed, co-sleeping, schooling, and technology rules is a major turn-off. I’ve personally faced uneducated and offensive advice on how to parent my child with special needs. Suggestions range from utilizing essential oils and karate class to my kid just needing a “good spanking.” Insert eye roll.

But if someone we trust, someone we have chosen to invite into our situation, offers to just listen—there’s a lot of relief and safety in that. We feel free to trust and to open up, knowing we won’t be judged. Like my friend with her children, I welcome advice from those whom I feel are qualified to dish it—even when I initially believed I didn’t need anyone to help me.

Lately, I’ve been trying to encourage problem solving in all of my children, but especially my tween daughters. I want them to have the opportunity to practice the skills they’ve gained and learn from their experiences. I don’t want to be the bulldozer mom—you know, the one who’s dropped the second the child heads to college and tastes some serious freedom for the first time. I also refuse to be the “cool mom” who tries to be her kids’ BFF. Because that’s not happening.

I want to be my kids’ cheerleader, safety net, and trusted confidant. What I don’t want to be? The mom who injects herself into every conversation and situation in her child’s life when it’s not warranted. I’m working to raise independent, responsible, respectful, accountable adults.

Recently, my oldest experienced a situation at school where her teacher believed she’d failed to return her library book–one that was months overdue. The consequence? A $10 book fine. My daughter, who is generally quite responsible, was extremely upset about being “in trouble.” I listened to her and asked what she thought she could do to fix the situation. Where was the book? Did she communicate with her teacher?

Asking my daughter thought-provoking questions was more effective than rendering explicit directions on what she should do. Turns out, she had turned in the book, which was discovered after a good old-fashioned conversation with her teacher. I didn’t step in. I didn’t take over. And my daughter felt proud of her ability to handle the situation. Now she’s just a tad more confident in her abilities—because she has experience instead of just mom’s lecture.

This may seem minor, but our kids learn one situation at a time. If I don’t give my kids the chance to DIY, how will they ever learn for themselves?

Tweens and teens are no doubt difficult to communicate with at times. Often, we have to probe and probe to get more than a grunt or text or a smart ass reply. But if we offer to listen—because that’s what we all want from our own loved ones—instead of dominate, we’re giving our kids an incredible gift.

In essence, by asking our kids if they need a listening ear or listening plus a suggestion, we are contributing rather than taking. And our kids are empowered because of it.

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