02/18/2011 10:14 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Talk so Your Child Will Listen: Vulnerability Is Key!

Last week I ran into a young woman (I'll call her Marielle) on the street. She reminding me that I'd precipitated a turning point in her relationship with her mother -- and in her life.

We'd met a decade earlier when I'd given a talk at her high school. "After your talk, my mother opened up in a new way," she said. "Or maybe I opened up in a new way as well." As we she spoke I flashed back to the presentation she referred to:

I'd been invited to talk about eating disorders, the audience was parents and teens. I'd begun my talk explaining that people who develop anorexia, bulimia and binge eating generally feel disconnected and isolated; I emphasized the importance of parents becoming better listeners, being tuned into the emotional problems that lurk beneath the problems with food, eating and weight concerns. One parent spoke up and said she often felt frustrated when she attempted to make contact with her daughter. Other parents echoed, chiming in about how inaccessible their children were, buried in their cell phones. As parents spoke up, I noticed a few teens texting and checking iPhone messages.

"How can I get my kids to want to talk to me?" one parent asked poignantly."

I turned the question back to the teens. The room was quiet. Finally a voice called out. "Why don't you just tell us what's really going on in your lives instead of giving us advice about how to run ours?" There was laughter and then, the room was quiet. It was as if a jolt of electricity ran through the room.

I congratulated the student who had spoken up for her genuine response, and asked if any parent wanted to respond and would talk about something worrisome that was on their mind other than their children. Finally a woman spoke up.

"I'm worried about my sister. Her husband might be leaving her and she isn't equipped to be a single parent." Her remark spurred on others.

"I'm worried about my husband's health." "I'm worried I might lose my job." "I'm worried because I hate my job."

Although I'd planned a presentation focusing on educating parents and students about the warning signs of eating disorders, I felt that a unique opportunity had presented itself. I switched gears and proceeded to break the large group up into small groups of four, each group consisting of two adults and two teens (specifically excluding parent-child units). I asked each person in the group to speak for two minutes about, "Something that worries me is..." I specified no interruptions, questions, comments, just listening. I was the timekeeper, and I sat back and waited while the dialogues unfolded. 10 years later I had a vivid picture of the school auditorium.

Fast forward back to Marielle. I asked her what exactly had impacted her from the evening event. She smiled: "I was the girl who spoke last," she said, and suddenly, I remembered her: the girl who had stood up and said:

"I really liked what we just did. I realize that when someone talks about what bothers them, I'm feel more readily to talk about what bothers me."

I remembered leaving that evening presentation feeling quite excited. I'd felt a bit concerned that I hadn't fulfilled what I'd been asked to do: educate the audience about the warning signs, but I'd sensed a lot of good energy in the room. Early in my career I'd learned: go where the fire is hot!! And I'd followed that rule. How delighted I'd been with what I experienced in the room that night... that the old saying, "vulnerability breeds vulnerability" had been validated. And now, meeting Marielle reminded me how important it is to listen to our gut feelings and take risks.

So take a minute and think about the last time you had a good conversation with your child or your parent, and whether there is something you might want to experiment with the next time you have the opportunity to connect.