Beyond Listening: Bridging the Communication Gap

Between Parents and Teens

By Lisa Jass

New Degree Press, 2021


One day, I walked into Coach Takk’s office. He took one look at me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I immediately burst into tears. “I have no idea what I’m crying about,” I said to him. He just leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited. I honestly don’t remember what the issue was right now, but there were so many moments like that. Sometimes he would catch me grinning, and he would want to know the good stuff too, and he would wait for me to tell him, even if I might be embarrassed. He could read my emotional grid. He would just listen, and when needed or wanted, he would offer advice, a kind word, his shoulder to cry on, or a place to laugh out loud. He would often “see” what I wasn’t saying. He spent the time to really get to know his students, and he let us get to know him too.

The funny thing about the beginning of my friendship with Mark Takkinen, lovingly known by everyone as Coach Takk, is that we both told the story pretty much the same way. He became the head football coach at the end of my sophomore year of high school, where I had been working as a student athletic trainer since the second week of my freshman year. I thought he was a loud bully, and he thought I was an entitled little bitch who thought I knew everything.

It didn’t take either of us long to realize that we were mistaken, but we both loved to tell the story of our

first impressions.

Coach Takk quickly became my mentor, my friend, a second father, and my go-to person when I needed advice or a shoulder to cry on. His family became a second family to me, and I shared many holidays with them. I had two of his children in my English class and also attended his daughter’s wedding.

In many ways, engaging with a teen is like walking into a minefield where any wrong move can lead to a blowup. Coach Takk was so good at diffusing these situations because he took the time to understand each of us. I know his approach impacted how I interact with teenagers. I wanted to have that type of relationship with my students, and I wondered if this was something all of us could learn from. What I found has changed the way I see the future of communicating with teenagers not just as a teacher, but also as someone who interacts with these kids at such a pivotal time in their lives.

When I look back at my own teenage years, I would never classify myself as an angsty teen, one with a feeling of deep anxiety or dread. Sure, there were times when I can see these same emotions that I often see in the teenagers I have taught over the past twenty years; I had the same drama many teens had: the fights with friends, disappointments with boys, and conflicts with my parents, but I would have to say that I was a generally happy teen.

Luckily, I had several amazing mentors through my teens. Many of them will make an appearance through the pages of this book, and you were introduced to one already whose impact on me began with a personality clash of epic proportions.

Mentors, those trusted adults that are not the parents, can offer sound advice that your teens will actually absorb at times when they are unwilling to listen to your advice. As a parent, knowing that your teen has these other trusted adults in their life can, with your guidance, give you needed peace of mind. Teens who have benefited from impactful adult mentors are not a reflection of parental disinterest. In fact, it is important to look at which characteristics of these adult mentors parents might be able to emulate. Teens with trusted adult mentors will be strengthened by these relationships and will feel that they have someone to trust with whom they can share their burdens.

According to numerous studies, including one from the American Psychological Association (2019), there has been a dramatic change in the mental health of teens correlating to the rise of digital media. Anxiety, depression, and even suicide in teens has increased dramatically. Teens claim that the world they live in is much different than that of their parents and, to a certain extent, there is truth to this. The teens of today are growing up in a world where their entire lives are put on display. I often joke with my students that my generation was the first to send text messages. We created words out of numbers on our pagers, but this generation not only has to deal with text messaging on a whole new level, but they also contend with social media that puts their life in a spotlight. They seek attention not only from their peers in person, but also from an entire population of peers around the globe that become their mirror to the world.

As parents, your first instinct is to tell them they don’t need to make these comparisons. While this is true, many teenagers simply are unable to hear this advice from you. You can still offer it, and you should, but don’t be surprised when they don’t take it from you. They might be able to hear it from another trusted adult or a peer, but they are at an age where they want to be an individual. All you can do is be supportive and help them to be their personal best by listening, being an example, guiding them away from the dangers, offering that unwanted advice, and being positive as often as humanly possible.

Teenagers can cause increased stress and make you question your parenting skills. They make you wonder how they could go from this sweet loving child to this new person they have become as a teenager, one who used to tell you everything and now you feel like they are keeping things from you.

The general consensus is to believe the following:

• Teens are overly dramatic and completely selfish.

• It is their hormones creating the attitude they toss around to everyone who is in their path.

• Teenagers believe that life revolves around them.

• It is a phase they are going through that everyone just has to tolerate and suffer through.

However, I believe that all this drama masks the underlying issues. If you communicate with your teen, it will drive deeper relationships and reveal the “how’s” and “whys” of your teenager. Because while some of it can be explained by biology and psychology, each teen is still essentially dealing with their own stuff. They are not all alike. Wouldn’t that be scary?

My favorite part of being a teacher has always been making connections with teens. Seeing them for who they are beyond the student who sits in a desk in my classroom. It is also why I became a transformational coach for parents and teens. It is one of the many reasons I am writing this book.

In this book, I am not going to tell you how to parent, but as a parent, some of what you read might make you uncomfortable. Your job is to protect your children at all costs, but what if by protecting them, you are doing more harm than good? What if by wanting to be their friend you are pushing them away? Throughout this book, there will be stories from my own personal experiences, stories that have been shared with me by others, and stories that come from secondary sources. Some of the stories will touch your heart, some of these stories may make you angry, and your emotions may be all over the place. I will ask you to think about what you already know and, in some cases, question it. I will ask you to listen with more than just your ears to pay attention to all the nuances of communication that go along with being in the life of a teenager.

I am not a parent; although, I have been asked by parents how to parent more than once during my teaching career. The first time this happened, my mouth fell open. I was barely out of school myself, and I had a parent ask me how to discipline her child. She had tried everything and didn’t know what to do. She told me that she tried to ground him, but she just couldn’t stick with it. It was a good thing we were on the phone at the time because I know my reaction was not very professional. I just didn’t understand. Twenty years later and that conversation would have gone a lot differently. It is not my job to teach parents how to parent their children, but I can now help parents and their children communicate on a different level.

You are the parent. There is no doubt of that. Your teens wouldn’t respect you if you did not show them how to be good adults, but they want you to lead by example and guide them. They want to be disciplined when they do wrong, but what they really want is to be heard and seen, even when they are pushing back. Because teenagers communicate with more than words, parenting teens is tough. They make it tougher, but it’s definitely worth the challenge.

When I first started teaching, I had just graduated from college and was beginning my student teaching year. I was twenty-four years old and was given both sophomore and senior classes to teach. I was only six years older than the students in my senior class, and as I have come to learn, my frontal lobe was nearing its final stages of development but still maturing (more on this in chapter one).

I was also working as an assistant to the athletic trainer, until I became a certified athletic trainer. I spent many hours in the training room, which allowed me to build an additional rapport with the students.

Teenagers especially have a tough time because they are stuck in that in-between place between being a kid and so desperately wanting to be treated like an adult. Biologically, their brains are stuck there too.

As adults, we want to protect them, we want to solve their problems for them, but what these kids want is for us to listen to them, to be there for them.

As a high school English teacher, I have spent more time with my teenage students over the past twenty years than I have with my own family during the school year. Throughout this time, I have opened my classroom door beyond the hours that I teach: in the morning, at lunch, and after school. This open-door policy allows students to come talk to me about anything on their mind. Most will come talk to me about things in their life rather than classwork. They want someone to talk to who will not judge them, and who will listen, and only offer advice when asked. I have given students a place to just get away, to come, and just be, and not have to talk. Some of them want a place to blow off steam, and I have allowed them the freedom to do that whether just to yell, cry, or sometimes bang on the wall or throw their own version of a teenage tantrum without doing any physical harm to themselves, me, or the room at large. Having an outlet is important to these teens, both boys and girls.

It is impossible to listen while speaking and trying to be heard yourself. With that in mind, are you really listening? Because that’s what it takes. It takes the ability to stop and listen with your whole being. Listen with your ears, with your eyes, with your heart. Above all, listen from their perspective. If you do all these things, you will be able to communicate more effectively with your teenagers and give them a fighting chance to become amazing adults.

I had a student tell me a story that is not uncommon for teens to have to deal with. This is a student who comes to talk to me often. She would talk about the fact that the relationship with her parents was strained. She didn’t feel like she could talk to either her mom or her dad. Her parents were divorced, and both had remarried. She kept talking about “an incident” that occurred that had caused this rift between her and her parents. Ultimately, she revealed that she had snuck a boy into her brother’s room at night when her brother wasn’t home, and her parents were sleeping. They got caught kissing in her brother’s room. Her parents freaked out. Now obviously discipline was in order for breaking rules, but this went further than that and her father refused to talk to her or even look at her. According to the teen, her father told her, “I don’t see you as a daughter anymore. No daughter of mine would do something like that.” Her mother told her that she didn’t really want to talk to her and the only reason she didn’t beat the crap out of her was that she herself had made out with boys when she was young. There are religious implications to the strong reactions of the parents, but the teen ultimately felt like she was being slut-shamed more than being punished for the act that she had actually committed. She was afraid to talk to her parents. Luckily, her relationship with her mother had improved somewhat, but she still felt like she was a burden on her at times. She still struggled with her relationship with her dad. She felt unloved by her dad and that she couldn’t talk to him about anything. She had been suicidal at a previous point in her life and this event triggered a depression in her. Her mother put her back in therapy after they were finally able to talk again to get her some coping skills, but her father refused to believe she even needed therapy thinking she was just being dramatic. Even if these feelings are just the perception of the teen, this was how she felt. This resulted in a communication problem. The reactions of these parents created ripples for this child and now she is wary of trusting them.

As a teacher, but not a parent, the students come to me for advice for a plethora of reasons. Some for the sheer sake that I am an adult who has dealt with many of their kind. Some because I am someone to trust because I am not one of your kind, namely, a parent, and some just want to pick my brain and see if they will get an answer they like. I If they don’t, they lump me in the general category of being an adult who doesn’t know anything.

Last year, I gave my students a survey about their parents. One of the questions asked was, “what is the biggest mistake their own parents or parents in general make in regard to teenagers?” The answer that kept showing up the most often was “parents don’t listen and they don’t communicate.” One student replied, “I believe that a lot of parents don’t really listen to their teens, they just think they know them, but in reality, many teens hide things from their parents because they’re afraid of judgment, disappointment, and punishment. Some teens do try talking to their guardians, but sometimes parents are distracted or just shrug them away.”

As parents, guardians, coaches, teachers, or any other adult in a teenager’s life, it is your job to take your communication beyond listening. To understand how to see beyond the teenage mask to develop deeper, richer, and more positive relationships with your teens.

This book will provide you with the tools you need to foster the relationships you would like to have with these teens. It will also provide you with insight directly from the mouths of teenagers. I have interviewed and given questionnaires to many of the teens I have had the pleasure to teach, and I cherish the honesty of their responses. I am sharing them with you in the hopes that you will truly see them and hear what they have to say.

One of the best ways I can help these teens is to help you, the parents, understand where they are coming from and in many cases, you will see I have asked them directly. Their responses are poignant and honest. Pay attention. I also recommend asking your own teens many of these questions. Their answers may surprise you, horrify you, or even delight you.

Open your eyes and your heart. Go beyond listening and really see, hear, and feel your teenager. That’s what it will take to communicate with your teen more effectively, which is my sincerest desire.

I don’t have all the answers. My goal is to show you a little bit of the background into why they act like they do and how to approach communicating with them during this time in their lives through research, my own experiences, others’ stories, and from the teens themselves, as well as ways for you to process how you feel about it all.

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