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Opinion & Essays - November, 2002 Issue #99 

Talking to Teens:
How Words Can Make or Break Our Kids

By Elisa Medhus, M.D.

[Dr. Medhaus is the author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves]

Troubled teens are never created in a vacuum. Each family member, parents included, contributes in some way to the turmoil and defiance that can drive these adolescents down a perilous path. And though raising a troubled teen can be overwhelming, the more trouble they get into, the more inclined we are to contribute to their downfall through the language we use with them. Parent-child communication is pivotal in making the family environment harmonious or hostile—a distinction that can make or break a child’s self-esteem. By simply making small but powerful changes in our parenting language, we can raise happy children who have the inner strength to make responsible choices in life. Parenting then becomes a joy rather than a burden.

Many of the remarks that make up our parenting lingo might surprise you, because at first glance, they appear harmless. Most are engrained habits handed down from one generation of parents to the next until they’ve become so reflexive, our mouths seem to have minds of their own. But all can change the family milieu from peaceful unity to intolerable battleground by driving children to any or all of the following states, each of which leaves no room for reflecting on choices and consequences:

  •  Low self-esteem: Feeling rotten about themselves

  •  Victimization: Thinking about how mean their parents are to them

  •  Self-defense: Thinking of ways to defend their pride and sense of worth.

  • Parent Deafness: Thinking about anything else because they’re hammered with the same remarks until it becomes background noise.

Let’s first consider some “healthier alternatives” to some of the remarks that might damage our kids, thus changing our role from dictator or manager to mentor. As impartial, firm and supportive guides, it’s easier to remain objective, so that we can view their misbehavior as a teachable moment rather than a personal vendetta meant to drive us to an early grave.

Although logical consequences should be our principal discipline tool, non-confrontational remarks are valuable as well. Let’s look at the five categories of:

“Peacemaker” Remarks:
1.) Limited choices (never to be used as a bribe) If/then: “If you can get ready for school in thirty minutes, you’ll have more time to watch TV before the bus comes.” When/then: “When you finish your homework, then we can go to the mall as we planned.” This or that: “I need help with dinner. What do you want to do, make the potatoes or grill the chicken?”
2.) Impartial observations “I see it’s already 6:00, and you haven’t started your homework, yet.”
3.) Objective information “Our family believes in telling the truth.” “It’s not safe to stay out past curfew.”
4.) “I” messages “I feel upset when people track mud on the floor I just mopped.” (Saying“people” rather than “you”makes the remark a less confrontational way of expressing your feelings.)
5.) Questioning “What is our rule about going places without telling us first?” “Why do we have that rule?” “How do you plan to help yourself remember that rule?” “What do you think would be a reasonable consequence for breaking that rule in the future?” Of course the teen is given a chance to answer each question.

When communicated politely, none of these take on an accusatory or judgmental tone, so rather than retaliate or defend themselves against what they perceive as a personal attack, our kids feel comfortable reflecting on our words and learning the valuable lessons they represent. This “healthier” parenting language is more effective in bringing about desirable behaviors and extinguishing undesirable ones. Although the alternative remarks described below can be used to replace the more harmful ones that may be rooted in our parenting language, remember, nothing packs as effective a punch as the logical consequences they should experience for their poor choices!

Remarks That Provoke, or Stress

  • Negatives like “no,” “don’t,” “stop,” “can’t,” and “quit.” Example: “Tommy, stop playing the music so loud!” Alternatives: “When the music is so loud, the other kids can’t concentrate on their homework.” If he refuses, remove his speaker and say in a polite voice: “Tommy, I’m sorry you chose to break our rule against playing the music loudly in the house.” Example: “No, you can’t have ice cream now! It’s suppertime!” Alternative: “Yes, you can have a ice cream after you’ve eaten supper.”

  •  Angry, disrespectful remarks Example: “Be quiet!” or “Shut up!” Alternatives: “If you want to be loud, you must go outside.” Example: “Put that back!” Alternatives: “Our family doesn’t touch things that don’t belong to them.”

  •  Time crunch remarks Example: “Hurry up!” Alternative: “I see the bus comes in five minutes, and you haven’t finished breakfast.” (Frankly, I’d take those kids who are ready and pick the dawdlers up later so they get a tardy. I’ve done this and it works great!)

Remarks That Judge

These remarks often have our own personal, often negative evaluation attached.

  • Criticism/nagging Example: “You’re hair is a rat’s nest. You need to comb it.” Alternative: It’s her hair! Let her wear it as she pleases! She’ll suffer a natural consequence if a nest of birds takes up housekeeping in her hair. You can also offer help, “Would you like me to help you brush your hair?” ¨

  • Reprimand Example: “How dare you talk to me in that tone of voice, Mister!” Alternatives: “You can stay here and speak respectfully, or leave the room.” “Our family speaks in a respectful tone to others.” “What is the family rule about talking that way? Why do we have that rule?”

  • Negative comparisons Example: “Your sister makes good grades. Why can’t you?” Alternative: “I’m sorry you’re having such a tough time with this. How can I help you?” In many cases, the natural consequence is probably sufficient. ¨

  • Negative labeling Example: “You’re so careless! I can’t believe you tipped over an entire bucket of paint!” Alternative: “I see you spilled some paint. Let me know if you need any help cleaning it up.” Try to point out what they did right in the task, if possible: “Wow, look how much of your room you’ve painted already. And I really like the color you chose!”

  • Negative generalizations Example: “You always forget to do your chores.” (Or “You never remember to do your chores.”) Alternatives: “I see the trash hasn’t been carried out yet.” “I took the trash out for you when I heard the garbage truck coming. I deducted 10 dollars from your allowance to pay for my time.”

  • Guilt or shame provoking remarks Some of these remarks are punitive, (“I wish you were never born,”) while others address the child personally, rather than the behavior, (“You’re a bad boy.”) Example: “I’m so disappointed in you for making your sister cry.” (Shame) Alternatives: “Our family treats others kindly.” “You can play with your sister again when you’ve taken care of her feelings.” Example: “If you loved me, you’d try harder in school.” (Guilt) Alternative: “You seem to be having trouble in algebra. Is there anything I can do to help?”

  • Words of martyrdom Example: “Fine, I’ll make your school lunch. I guess I’m everyone’s personal slave here!” Alternatives: “We pack our own lunches in our family.” “That is a task you can do on your own, Bobby. You can either pack your own lunch or skip lunch tomorrow. It’s up to you.” So the kid goes hungry at lunch! Children old enough to take care of their personal needs should, unless you just offer to help out of the kindness of your heart.

Remarks That Tell Kids What to Think and Do

  •  Thought indoctrination (telling them what they should be thinking) Example: “Don’t be ridiculous, you don’t hate your sister!” Alternative: “I’m sorry to see you not getting along with your sister, but I’m sure you two will find a way to work out your differences.”

  •  Invalidating Example: “No it isn’t a boring movie.” Alternative: “What did you find boring about the move?” ¨

  • Stating opinions as fact Example: “People that pierce their noses are just no good punks who probably do drugs.” Alternative: Make sure you express your opinions with an “I” message: “I don’t like the idea of nose piercing or any other form of self-mutilation. I’d be afraid of future regrets and the risks of infection and other complications. What is your opinion?"

Remarks That Control and Dominate

  •  Directives (Telling kids what to do, whether in anger or calmly) Example: “Erik, go get your jacket.” Alternative: “Erik, it’s 20 degrees out. What do you need to do to be comfortable at school today?”

  •  Threats (real and idle,) ultimatums and overly oppressive punishments Example: “If you don’t clean your room, you’re grounded for a month.” Alternative: In our house, every Sunday I announce that in one hour, I’m going into their bedrooms with a trash bag picking up anything not properly put away, and taking it to a shelter as a donation. (And I do!)

  •  Imposing authority/superiority Example: “Because I’m the boss, that’s why!” Alternatives: Any of the five remark techniques will work here, depending on the misbehavior. For instance, if the teen is questioning why he should help set the table, you can say, “Because in or family, we all help each other out.” You can also say, “You don’t have to. That’s your decision. But only those sharing a task can reap its rewards.”

  •  Stating illogical punishments Example: “Young man, I want you to write ‘I will not rip the heads of my sister’s Barbie Dolls’ 100 times on a sheet of paper!” Alternatives: “You will need to replace the doll you destroyed. Get your wallet and we’ll drive to the toy store so you can buy your sister a new one.”

As you can see, most of these suggestions involve removing rather than adding things to our already brimming parenting plate. Relying on consequences rather than diatribes means delegating more responsibility to our children to grow up well so that parenting is less labor intensive. And when we replace remarks that bring about emotionally exhausting power struggles with ones that keep the peace, parenting becomes a joy rather than a burden. Within two weeks of making some of these changes, you will experience a newfound sense of harmony in the family that just might help turn your troubled teen around.

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