Learning the Language of your Teen’s Heart
When my girls were babies, one of my dear friends had a teenager struggling with anorexia. As she went into treatment, they required family therapy and the therapist said he had never seen a patient so open with her parents throughout the process. Somehow they had created communication patterns that held during crisis. She weathered the anorexia battle with her parents because they kept talking through the hurts, disappointments, and twisted messages of culture about her body.
From there emerged one of my life prayers over my girls: “Lord, please keep our communication open no matter what is happening in their hearts or lives.”
God has honored that prayer (though the past couple of years, it’s darn near killed me!). Not because what is in their hearts has been particularly shocking or frightening, but because what emerges from the hearts of teenagers is often messy. Truth and warped perceptions. Profound insights and unfiltered, immature thinking. Insight filtered through a development lens of self-absorption.
Believe it or not, our teens are communicating mountains about their inner world— but they are just using a completely different language: Criticism. Inappropriate humor. Judgement. Self-centered thoughts. Exaggeration. Comparison. Resistance.
If you take what they are saying a face value, you will think– this kid is so self-absorbed! And he is. This is an ugly and unavoidable phase of development where they are interpreting the world through the lens of selfhood. And that self-absorption can swing different directions– from incredible egocentrism to great insecurity.
In the messy in-between stage of adolescence, kids are learning to communicate what is happening in their hearts. Our job is to learn THEIR language, interpret, and guide them towards healthy and appropriate communication to others in their lives. And of course to help them learn how to expand that lens beyond themselves.
Here’s some things to remember about communicating with your teen:
Don’t take the ride. The best piece of advise my mom gave me as a former junior high pastor– don’t take the emotional ride with them. Adolescents are on a wacky hormonal ride— for YEARS. Whether she is weeping uncontrollably because the mean girls snubbed her or throwing a fit because you’ve asked her to take out the trash– don’t go to the depths of despair or respond to her anger by screaming back. STAY OFF their emotional rollercoaster. (And have your own meltdown later.)
Look underneath their criticisms for what is really going on. One of my friends’ youngest child started saying things like, “Mom, you never read me books when I was little. You read to the other kids, but not me.” Now even at face value, that’s probably not true (especially because my friend is a huge reader). She was tempted to try to argue this from a rational perspective– “Remember, xyz book? or xyz book? Those were your favorites, of course I read to you.” But, this isn’t about facts. This is about her feelings. My friend wisely said, “It sounds like you are feeling neglected as you look back on your childhood. Was it hard for you to be the youngest of four?” This led into a series of helpful discussions about her role in the family.
Someone once said to me, “Children are wonderful observers, but terrible interpreters of what is going on around them.” Kids are interpreting things through a lens of immaturity and inexperience. They make connections that aren’t often accurate. That’s why children often think it’s their fault that their parents got a divorce.
In my friend’s case, her daughter perceived that she was being overlooked because she was a quiet youngest child. To some degree, there was probably truth in that– there were way squeakier wheels in that household demanding her mom’s attention. Because it felt like neglect, my friend was able to ask forgiveness for the ways she hurt her daughter and it brought healing to their relationship.
Say you are sorry, when it’s warranted. You are not perfect and adolescents know that. They are going to confront us on things that are often true. If you have an anger or control issue– don’t hide behind “I’m the parent – just do what I say.” Start owning up to your dysfunction. Get help for your issues.
Saying you are sorry goes a LONG way with teens. You can still hold them accountable for their behavior even when you blew it in your response. But refusing to acknowledge your part lowers your credibility with a teen.
Don’t feel like you need to bring their exaggerated sense of self back down to earth. We may think it’s our job as parents to make sure our kids are realistic about themselves, so we say things to bring them back down to reality when they exaggerate their talents or knowledge. When she says, “If you had put me in gymnastics, I could have gone to the Olympics.” Reason wants you to respond: “What about the other 4 sports you quit over the years?! You don’t follow through on anything.” Instead, say “You are a good athlete– it’s not too late to find a sport you love.” So many perceptions of self are formed through the comments our parents make and these ‘corrective’ statements spoken in adolescence can deeply imprint.
Humor is your best friend. Humor does a lot to diffuse tension and create bonds. So when the first thing my kid says as she gets in the car is, “Mom, you put mustard on my sandwich and gave me a rotten apple.” I’d say, “I know, I love putting surprises in your lunch everyday. One day you’ll get to put rotten apples in your child’s lunch box too.” Use humor to diffuse and discipline in more strategic moments.
Teens actually use teasing to connect – especially with their mothers. Learn to laugh with them. In their eyes, you are a little ridiculous– so what? Often they come back around and realize how wise you were later. Of course, they can cross the line at times– let them know that too.
You’ll get some of your best information from a major explosion or meltdown. The best intel on your teen’s heart doesn’t usually come from a planned, warm and fuzzy conversation. As unnerving as it is for a teen to hear your child say, “I hate myself! I’m so ugly!” or “Nobody understands me!” You want this information. These things are pointing to places that need healing, prayer, and intervention.
My sister always said she prayed that her kids’ ‘signature sins’ would manifest while under her roof so she could help equip them before they left home. That’s a dangerous prayer. This means you will most likely start noticing where your child runs in her pain or stress. This could include self-harm, pornography, addiction, lying, cheating, obsessive compulsive disorders, detachment, bullying others, anxiety, depression, promiscuity, and who knows what else.
Getting glimpses into a teen’s heart can be overwhelming at times. We will see face to face the glory of what it means to be human– in its raw, immature form. And our job as parents to help guide them through the process of discovering both their beauty and their brokenness. And most importantly, we want to point them to the remedy to their brokenness– a God who sees it all, covers it all, and ultimately came to to free them to live into their beauty more fully.