Talking to Teens Without Shouting, Getting Gored, or Losing a Finger

02/06/2013 01:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2013

Recently, I heard about a woman being gored by a rhino in South Africa. She was in a safari park when a guide suggested that she stand closer to the rhino for a photograph. Immediately afterward, the animal gored her and flung her into the air.

"Poor woman," one of my friends said.

My first thought: Why would anyone listen to a guide who said that?

My second thought: Taking a picture of a supposedly docile rhino is a lot like talking to a teenager.

I don't have a psychology degree, but when it comes to teens, I have a dandy little sample size at home: five kids, the youngest of whom is now 15, the prime age for goring parents who approach at the wrong moment. It's enough to make you wish you had a supply of elephant tranquilizer. Since most of us are not so well-equipped, though, I thought it might be useful to share what I've learned about photographing rhinos in the wild. I mean, talking to teens. Here goes:

Avoid Early Morning Encounters. Do not startle a teen with sudden attempts at conversation when the animal is sleeping in its bed, or yes, it will bite the hand that feeds it. Wait until your teen is up, showered and dressed before trying to talk about anything. These animals generally hibernate during daylight hours when they are between 12 and 20 years of age. Oh, and never try to talk to a hungry teen, either, unless you want to risk losing your fingers.

Do Not Ask Intrusive Questions. Teenagers have nerve endings on the outside of their skin and won't grow that additional layer of protective skin before age 18. The slightest touch or question is painful. If you must ask a question, ask it in a roundabout way, such as: "What did you have for lunch today? I was thinking about making either chicken or spaghetti for dinner." You will know by the animal's response if it is frightened or angry. If you're lucky, the animal may reward you with an expression of affection, such as, "That would be great! I hated the lunch today. Their grilled cheese is always like gum." Or even, "Ugh, Brian tried to sit with me at lunch again. He gives me the creeps. Did I tell you he asked me to the dance?"

Do Not Talk AT Your Teen. Talk TO Her. Everybody hates a lecture. If you start lecturing your teen about unloading the dishwasher, grades, sex, driver's ed or whatever, you can expect the animal to turn its face to the wall and present its rump, with one leg dangerously cocked for a kick. A better way to approach your teen with a request or with information you wish to impart is to do it slowly and directly. Instead of, "Why the hell didn't you unload the dishwasher when I asked you?" try, "I know you've got a lot on your mind, but could you please unload the dishwasher before I start cooking dinner?" Or: "I've been so tired after work lately. It would be a huge help if you could start walking the dog after school. That will let me get dinner started sooner." (Note the continued focus on food and rewards.) Avoid shouting at all costs, because that will enrage the animal and make you look out of control.

Volunteer to Drive Your Teen and His Herd. There is no better place to observe herd behavior and eavesdrop than in the car. They won't even know you're behind the wheel.

Treat Texting Like a Conversation. Yes, it's annoying, having your teen text. Make basic rules about not texting at the dinner table or during board games and movies. Once those are clear, though, treat texting like a conversation. Your teen might look like he's twiddling his thumbs, but he's communicating with his pack about the watering hole and potential predators. If you must interrupt, say, "I really need to talk to you about tonight's plans. Let me know when you're finished with that conversation so we can work things out." Feel free to text your teen; however, do not use any sassy LOL or LFMAO abbreviations. Whatever language you learned is no longer the language of today.

Avoid Sarcasm. Yep, teens are sarcastic. That's the call of the wild. But just because they dish it out doesn't mean they can take it. Remember that extra layer of skin they won't acquire until adulthood? That protects them against hurtful remarks, and they don't have that yet. They will try to wound you many times. It's fine to let them know they've hurt you, but do not try to hurt them in return. Teens, like elephants, have very long memories. They know where the elephant graveyard is.

Find Safe Things to Do Together. There are certain things that are safe to do with animals and others that are not. A horse, for instance, doesn't want you to pull on its tail, but loves having you scratch its neck or hold your palm flat with a carrot nub in it. A dog you adopt from a shelter will be timid or may even become a biter if you're always yelling and swatting it with a newspaper when it makes a mistake. Give that dog treats and a ball to play with, though, and it will be your friend for life. Need I say more about teenagers here? I think not. But I will anyway: Find things your teen loves to do, and do them together, whether it's hiking or going to concerts, drawing or playing soccer, and that will become the foundation for your relationship, not all of the small negative exchanges.

Let Your Teen Approach You. Here is the biggest mistake most people make with wild animals: they approach them. Most teens feel so self-conscious and edgy about everything that they will feel cornered no matter how you approach them. Let them do the approaching whenever possible. This doesn't mean disappear. This means be around your teen -- reading the paper at the kitchen table, doing something at your desk -- and available. When your teen does approach, don't make a snappy remark, either. Just listen. For once, just listen while your teen talks. Then offer him a snack.