Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes

CHAPTERS: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

Chapter 3 - The healing dialogue

Parents can be their children's advocates

Daniel, age fourteen, came home raving mad: “The dumb bus driver Smitty called me a stupid idiot, three times! And he pushed me, too.”

MOTHER: Mr. Smith wouldn't push you without a reason. You must have done something to provoke him. What did you do?

DANIEL: Nothing. I was just talking.

MOTHER: Look, I know you and I know Mr. Smith. He's a nice man. I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt you. He must have been tired. It's not easy to drive a bus full of wild kids.

At this point Daniel exploded. At the top of his voice he yelled: “You don't care about me at all. You always defend the other guy,” and he stormed out of the house.

In this episode mother was not helpful. When a teenager is in trouble, there are many adults willing to prosecute him. It is only fair that our child not be left without a defense attorney. And who but the parent is more capable of being the child's advocate? Many parents act as though they were their teenager's prosecutor. In any dispute they come to the defense of a stranger rather than their own son or daughter. They provide explanations and excuses for the discourtesy of a driver, the teasing of a teachers, the rudeness of a waiter, the insult of a classmate, the nagging of a neighbor, and the brutality of a bully.

Some parents refuse to stand by their teenagers in their entanglements with the world out of fear of making them soft. They resist their natural inclination to help them because they believe they will be better prepared for life in “The School of Hard Knocks.” This false belief has estranged many parents from their teenagers.

Parents are their children's advocates. Like attorneys they operate within the law. They do not condone misbehavior, or sanction misconduct. Lawyers do not encourage crime. They do not compliment a safe-cracker on his skill or a con artist on her cunning. However, regardless of the offense they defend the accused. In the most difficult situations they try to see the extenuating circumstances and to provide aid and hope.

Emotional first aid

When Daniel told his mother that he had been insulted and pushed around by the school-bus driver, it was not her duty to look for the driver's motives or to supply excuses for him. Her task was to show her son that she understood his anger, hurt, and humiliation. Any of the following statements would have told Daniel that his mother knew what he had gone through:

“It must have been terribly embarrassing for you.”

“It must have been humiliating.”

“It must have made you angry.”

“It must have made you furious.”

“You must have really resented him at that moment.”

Strong feelings tend to diminish in intensity and to lose their sharp edges when a sympathetic listener accepts them with understanding. Compassion is a great healer. After emotional first aid has been administered, it is often best to postpone further action. The temptations to teach someone an instant lesson should be resisted. Immediate intervention may only escalate the conflict. It is easier to resolve incidents and restore peace when emotions have subsided and moods changed. In emotional situations, a parent's response to his teenager should be different form that of anyone else. A stranger speaks to the mind; a parent speaks to the heart.

David, age seventeen, was interviewed for a summer job, but was rejected. He returned home disappointed and depressed. Father felt sympathy for his son and conveyed it effectively.

FATHER: You really wanted this job, didn't you?

DAVID: I sure did.

FATHER: And you were so well equipped for it, too.

DAVID: Yeah! A lot of good that did me.

FATHER: What a disappointment.

DAVID: It sure is, Dad.

FATHER: Looking forward to a job and having it slip away just when you need it is tough.

David: Yeah, I know.

There was silence for a moment. Then David said, “It's not the end of the world. I'll find another job.”

Seven roads to trouble

The preceding situation could have been mishandled in several distinct ways:

  1. By reasoning. “What did you expect? To get the first job you wanted? Life is not like that. You may have to go to five or even ten interviews before you are hired.”
  2. By clichés. “ Rome was not built in one day, you know. You are still very young, and your whole life is in front of you. So, chin up. Smile and the world will smile with you. Cry and you will cry alone. I hope it will teach you not to count you chickens before they are hatched.”
  3. By “take me for instance. ” “When I was your age I went looking for my first job. I shined my shoes, got a hair cut, put on clean clothes, and carried the Wall Street Journal with me. I know how to make a good impression.”
  4. By minimizing the situation. “I don't see why you should feel so depressed. There is really no good reason for you to be so discouraged. Big deal! One job did not work out. It's not worth even talking about.
  5. By “the trouble with you. ” “The trouble with you is that you don't know how to talk with people. You always put your foot in your moth. You lack poise and you are fidgety. You are too eager, and not patient enough. Besides, you are thin-skinned and easily hurt.”
  6. By self-pity . “I am so sorry dear, I don't know what to tell you. My heart breaks. Life is so much a matter of luck. Other people have all the luck. They know the right people in the right places. We don't know anyone.
  7. By a “Pollyanna” approach. “Everything happens for the best. If you miss one bus there will soon be another, perhaps a less crowded one. If you didn't get one job, you'll get another – perhaps even a better one.”

Parents can learn to avoid such hazards to effective communication. They can learn to listen attentively and respond simply and sympathetically.

The nonjudgmental reply

Adults usually react to their teenager's statements in one of two ways: they either approve or disapprove. Yet the most helpful response to children is often nonjudgmental. A nonevaluative response contains neither praise nor criticism. Instead, it identifies feelings, recognizes wishes, and acknowledges opinions.

The following statements by mothers illustrate helpful responses to emotional situations:

“It's very hard to stay home sick”

“My husband planned to take our children ice skating. However, Donna, age thirteen, got sick. So only our younger son went along. Donna became extremely upset. When I saw her reaction I wanted to say: ‘You're the one who always gets taken places while you brother usually stays home. Now, for a change, when he's going you're complaining.' Fortunately, I controlled myself. In the back of my mind I knew that if I could recognize how she felt, instead of judging her, life would be better. I said, ‘It's very hard to stay home sick while Daddy and Brother go skating, isn't it, Donna?' She agreed. I said, “You wish you were going, too.' ‘Yes.' She answered with a long sigh. Her mood changed. She was soon absorbed in a book.”

“It's been such a long day for you.”

Scene: Mother and daughter washing dishes.

DORA: I am so tired.

MOTHER: It's been such a long day for you.

DORE: Yes, and school was so-o-o boring.

MOTHER: It was very long…

DORA: Yes, the teacher is slow. Her voice is so monotonous. And we had her for two periods, math and science, one right after the other.

MOTHER: I bet it seemed endless.

DORA: That's right. It tired me out, but I feel better now.

“You're really annoyed with the alarm clock.”

“Ours is a household in which four children and two parents leave the house between 7:30 and 8:10 A.M. Imagine the chaos on the morning last week when everyone slept until 7:50. But my ‘new look' made the situation salvageable. Recognizing the children's feelings was most effective. ‘You're really annoyed that you forgot to set the alarm!' ‘You hate to have to hurry getting dressed.' ‘You wish you had more time.' These statements proved much more effective than my usual sermons on responsibility and punctuality.”

“You do have a lot of work.”

“Oliver, age thirteen, came home from school in an ornery mood. He had a lot of homework plus an assignment he hadn't finished in school. He said he hated his teacher because she kept piling on work.

“I resisted the impulse to preach: ‘Well, it's not your teacher's fault. You have only yourself to blame. If you had finished the work in class, you wouldn't have to do it at home.' Instead I said, ‘You do have a lot of work: Spelling, arithmetic, and social studies all in one day.' To my surprise Oliver answered, ‘I'd better start right away. I have lots to do.'”

“It's scary to get out and play in front of all those people.”

“Diane, age fourteen, is a gifted pianist, but she performs poorly at recitals. Before each performance she cries and complains of nervousness. I used to tell her there was nothing to worry about. I tried to reassure her with inane words like: ‘The audience doesn't know when you make a mistake'; or ‘You are terrific, go and prove it to everyone'; or ‘This behavior on your part is nonsensical.' I was denying her painful feelings.

“She played each time, but never well. There were moments of forgetting, of poor technique, and of loss of beautiful nuances. After each concert, she would weep and call herself a failure. I would minimize her poor performance and insist that she was quite good. I lied and she knew it was a lie.

“Last week, she was scheduled to perform a piano concerto. The familiar wailing and weeping started. But, this time I was prepared. When Diane told me shoe could not perform, and asked me to announce that she was ill, I really listened to her. Then I said: ‘It scary to get out and play in front of all those people. You must feel as if they are judging you. Of course you feel nervous.'

“Diane couldn't believe her ears. She said, ‘You do understand how I feel, Mother. I never thought you really did.'

“Diane performed well. Though tense and concerned, she played better than ever before. After the concert she said, ‘This time I really deserved the applause. Don't you agree?' ‘It was a real pleasure to listen to your playing,' I answered. There were tears of joy in her eyes.

Empathy and genuineness

It should be emphasized that the suggested methods are not merely techniques but interpersonal skills and personal attitudes, helpful only when used with empathy and genuineness. They are effective when applied selectively and appropriately. Teenagers vary in their response to our communications. In words and acts they tell us what they like or dislike. A wise application of parental skills will not ignore individual differences in temperament and personality.

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