Change 3 Words and Improve your Connection with Teens

The preteen in your life may scream at you just for asking her what she wants for dinner. She may cry uncontrollably over things you find trivial. She may run upstairs and slam her bedroom door multiple times per week due to feeling like no one understands her. Being a preteen is hard, and communicating with her in an effective manner is even harder. Forgetting how difficult the teenage years were in your own life can understandably dull your empathy towards her. Connecting with your teen may feel like you’re trying to assemble a sofa from Ikea, but you’ve lost the instructions. However, finding a way to connect with her will give her a platform to help her find those emotional connections with others as she matures, which will greatly improve her psychological health. As a plus, your household will become much less chaotic. A lot goes into successful communication with teens, but here are three ideas to get you started: 

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 1. Replace YOU with I 

During more intense exchanges, as soon as we use the word “you” at the beginning of a sentence we are automatically putting the teen in our life on the defense. When the other person gets defensive, we get defensive, and the conversation ends badly. Instead of saying, “You should have emptied the dishwasher when I asked you to”, try saying “I need help around the house because I feel overwhelmed. Remembering to empty the dishwasher really helps me out.” In this example not only do we lower the level of emotional intensity, we also provide an explanation as to why her help emptying the dishwasher is needed. Instead of saying, “You need to get a hold of yourself”, try saying “I see that you’re upset and I will have an easier time talking about what’s going on in a calmer environment.” This statement has the added benefit of using validation which indicates to her that she is understood. If she uses a “you” statement, such as “You just don’t understand”, try answering with an “I” statement, such as “I might not understand, but I am trying to see your point of view.” Responding in this way will decrease the stress of the situation, ease her frustration, and keep you from wanting to pull your hair out. 

 2. Replace BUT with AND

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When we use “but” we negate the first part of our statements. The teen in our lives will focus on what came after the “but” and will not even register that we complimented her. Instead of saying, “ You did a great job on your English test, but your math is not looking good at all”, try saying “You did a great job on your English test and your math is not looking good at all.” This statement gives equal weight to both issues. Instead of saying, “You played well at your soccer game, but I have seen you play better”, try saying “You played well at your soccer game and I have seen you play better.” When we use “and” we relay to her that she played good and she can play even better, not only that she has played better in the past. 

 3. Replace SHOULD with WISH

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 Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Using these words indicate that past decisions or behaviors “coulda” had different consequences. We can’t turn back time, so there is no need to focus on what she should have done. Also, we don’t always know that if she had done something different the situation would have turned out better. When we tell someone what we think they should have done, just like when we use “you”, the person is going to become defensive 99% of the time. A better way for us to express an alternate decision is to use the word “wish”. Wish implies that the decision/behavior was perhaps not the greatest, while also not making us the authority on what an ever strongly independent teen “should” have done. Instead of saying “You should have kept going to dance classes”, try saying “I wish that dance classes were still an option for you.” The statement using “should” relays our disappointment in her, yet the one using “wish” affirms her decision while also relaying that we wanted her to continue with dance classes. Even when used in present time, such as “You should try out for the school play”, the word “should” relays that we know exactly what she should do and comes across as an ultimatum. Saying “ I wish you’d try out for the play”, expresses your desire for her to try-out, but does not take away her power to make her own decisions.  

 These changes are simple to learn, but very hard to implement. Because we all have these ingrained verbal patterns that are difficult to break, to make the changes we have to practice. If we practice during conversations with low emotional intensity, when we do have those conversations with high emotional intensity, we will remember how to be more effective in spite of our anger, fear, anxiety.

**Protip: Making these changes also improves our communication with adults.