When I asked a good friend whether there's anything she regrets saying in front of her teenager, she responded "pretty much everything I've ever said."
Since I have three teenagers myself, two boys and a girl, I know what she means. When it comes to efforts to engage in real and meaningful dialogue with teenagers, complicated doesn't even begin to describe the terrain. And that's because, as parents, we often talk at our teens and not with them.
At least that's been my experience. I love my kids like crazy, but since they were about 12 or 13, they've grown more mysterious, as different from me as chalk is from cheese. They know that, once upon a time, I was a pretty awful teenager, which is why I watch them so closely with an experienced eye and, obviously, with their best interests at heart. But when we're having a deep discussion, I'm not always that great at hearing them out before coming to a conclusion.
And so, after speaking with more than a dozen experienced parent friends, I've come up with a list of eight things you should never, ever say to your teenager. You may have a completely different list, and that's fine. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, just as there are no perfect parents.
1. "How was school today?"
I can't tell you how many times I've asked this question, only to be met with a one-word response -- usually "good" or "fine" but sometimes "alright" or even "I don't know" -- and a view of my teenager's back as he or she walked from the room. I've found it's better to ask questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" or a one-word answer to spark more detailed conversation. So instead of asking "did you have a good day?" you might ask "was the algebra test as hard as you thought it would be?" or "who did you sit with at lunch?"
2. "Is that a tattoo on your new best friend?"
If you criticize your kid's friend, I guarantee that your teen will shut down faster than the New York State Thruway in a blizzard. You should be trying to draw your kid's circle of friends in, not push them out. After all, a wide variety of friends -- including some you may not immediately like -- will widen their world, just as various friends widened our worlds when we were teens.
3. "If you keep this up, you're never going out of the house again."
An idle threat is never a good idea. Not only does it show you're losing your temper, but it's not attaching a clear consequence with a specific behavior. It's also not good to open a curfew up to interpretation by telling your teen to be home "around 10ish." With my teens, I've learned -- the hard way -- to be as specific as possible so that there can be no wiggle room in their responses. I tell them to be home by 10 p.m. and no later. I ask them to take out the trash AND unload the dishwasher -- within the next 10 minutes.
4. "Good job!"
I used to say this all the time to my kids until I realized I was saying it so much, it had lost all its meaning. Obviously you should praise and encourage your kids. But don't just keep saying "good job" if there really isn't anything to say "good job" about. Be sincere and specific with your praise. Try to compliment your teen's efforts rather than the results. Say "I can see how hard you worked to prepare for the test" rather than "good job" when they earn a B.
5. "You'd be so popular/pretty/smart if you'd just..."
Your teenager is nothing if not self-conscious, so keep the negative comments to yourself. Each child is unique with his or her own special characteristics. Focus on the good.
6. "Did dad put those jeans in the dryer? Because they look tight."
There's a right way and a wrong way when it comes to dealing with weight gain. I've seen parents criticize their child's weight in an innocent attempt to show they care but, believe me, the message often gets lost in translation. "Do you think you need that piece of cake?" will only make your teen feel worse about themselves than they probably already do. If weight or fitness really is a concern, seek professional guidance on how to broach the topic.
7. "You can't imagine what I've been through today" or "you can't imagine the day I've had."
I've been guilty of saying something like this many times when one of my kids has tried to tell me something or ask me something as soon as I walk in the door from work. Indeed, you may have had a day so bad all you want to do is pour yourself a glass of wine and crawl under the covers. But your teen needs you to be present -- even when you may not feel like it.
8. "Just give me a minute!"
If only I had a dime for each time I've said this during a hectic day. But I believe it tells your kids you are brushing them off. And I don't want to do that. Better to say that you just need to finish up a quick task and that you'll be with them in a few minutes. And then actually BE with them in a few minutes.
What's the worst thing you've said to your teenager? Let us know in comments.
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