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Parent Talk: Love and Limits - 2003-08-17

Living under the same roof with a teenager might not be easy for some parents. Yet, childcare experts say the experience can be easier when parents know how to talk and connect with their teens. To help parents do that, dozens of books are released every year. Although some of those books propose new ideas, experts say the basics of parenting children and teens have remained almost the same for several generations. It is all about communication.

Childcare experts usually see an undeniable link between the words parents speak and the influence those words can have on their children. Some words can heal, while others can wound.

"We do that unconsciously. Some of us do that by not knowing the effect words have on children," said Chick Moorman, the founder of The Institute for Personal Power. He is trying to help parents choose the right words when they speak to their children.

In his book Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language that Builds Self-Esteem and Encourage Responsibilities, Mr. Moorman says parents sometime repeat certain phrases out of habit or use words that their parents once used with them. In his opinion, some of these words have a destructive effect on children, "Things like 'We never wanted you anyway', 'You are going to be ashamed of yourself', or 'You are the reason we are going to get a divorce'," he says.

On the other hand, Mr. Moorman suggests there are certain things that parents need to say to their children quite often. One of these phrases is 'I love you.'

"It is important to say it, to show it and to hug them. I tell kids 'I love you' when I discipline them too. When I come back and say I want you to know that I love you, but I do not like that behavior," Mr. Moorman.

Mr. Moorman's list of positive words that parents can say to their children also includes phrases such as 'Every problem has a solution', 'You always have more choices than you think', 'Please, make a different choice' and 'No.'

"I think one of the best things we can say to children is 'No.' I say it to the little ones more than I say it to a teenager, It is about boundaries, guidance, direction and that is our job as parents to create that," said Mr. Moorman.

According to Mr. Moorman, the more positive communication that parents have early on, the easier their job gets when their young children become teenagers. He says, at that stage, parent talk takes a different turn.

"With the teenagers, I'll do a lot more of listening, asking their opinion. I try to be quiet and hear more," he stresses.

Child expert Mike Riera agrees with that technique. In his book Connecting with Your Teen, Mr. Riera says parents must understand the developmental changes their kids go through during adolescence, and adapt to a different way of communication.

"Often things that worked so well when they were younger would not work," he says. "You ask them direct questions and they would open up. It was very easy and kids love to do it. But when they become teenagers, they do not do that anymore. It is not that they do not want it, it has something to do with their development mentally and how their thinking is changed. We can make use of the developmental changes they go through, to keep the connection with our kids alive and actually growing through the adolescence. At the same time, stay their parent and not try to be their friends, which I do not think ever works for kids."

For moms and dads to maintain their parental role, but still connect with their teens, Mr. Riera says they should be aware of the common mistake parents usually make, and that is to micro manage. "We all do that because we love our kids so much," he says. "We do not want to see them suffer at all. So we make the mistake of over managing their lives. Then when they reject us, we take it personally."

Mike Riera believes that in trying to connect with teenagers, parents should think more in terms of influence rather than control.

"When they are born, we are like the managers of their lives," he said. "When they become teenagers it is most appropriate that they fire us as managers. Our job then is to resign with grace and get ourselves re-hired as consultants, which means we are doing more from the sidelines, trying to read between the lines and figuring out when they are open."

But when teens are seriously misbehaving or harming themselves, what can responsible parents do? For Scott P. Sells, an associate professor of social work at Savannah State University in Georgia, one reason teens misbehave is because they know how to push their parents' buttons. That is, they know what to say or do that might make their parents angry.

In his book Parenting Your Out of Control Teenager, Dr. Sells says another reason parents lose control over their teenagers is because they don't take charge and set limits.

"When parents try to lay rules down, like no ditching school, the teenager will be tardy, because there is nothing written in the contract," he says. "What needs to happen is they really need to get an ironclad contract."

But in addition to outlining clear rules and consequences, he suggests that parents not lose sight of the need to nurture their children. Dr. Sells says when parents can start to appreciate and praise their teens, instead of always criticizing them, the connection between both sides grows stronger.