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With teens, it's not just what you say but how you say it

October 11, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“She may not have raised her voice, but her tone yelled at me!”

I recalled these words from a former student in a conversation with fellow parents and Keystone’s two counselors, Allison Raymer and Dr. Erica Shapiro during a book talk last week. We gathered in the Lower School Library to discuss Dr. Wendy Mogel’s newest book, Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen. I should say that I have been a fan of Dr. Mogel for a long time, and I have recommended her two previous books, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and The Blessings of B- to many, many people. Based in Los Angeles, Dr. Mogel is a practicing social-clinical psychologist who has an excellent handle on how to help children develop resilience and independence in today’s world. With humor, she offers sage and practical advice for parents and educators.

In her newest book Mogel explains how the way in which we speak to children at all stages of their lives can be so formative in their upbringing. We know this intuitively, but all too often, and in the heat of the moment, we may forget. There’s a wonderfully, cringe-worthy scene in last year’s hit movie, Ladybird, where the mother and her senior daughter are shopping for prom dresses. The mom does not intend to be condescending and patronizing, but her comments made many of us in the audience both laugh and squirm as her daughter experienced a combination of pain and frustration.

Mogel shows in chapter after chapter how from early on, we talk to our children in ways that can be either uplifting or overly critical, without even thinking about it. Mogel recalls anecdotes from her practice while offering concrete tips that can help us all improve. There’s so much to learn from this book, and Mogel teaches in a way that is both helpful and easy to access.

Perhaps one of my favorite sections is called “What Teenagers Wish Their Parents Knew.” She categorizes these comments from adolescents into three subsections called “What do your parents worry about that they don’t need to?”, “What’s one piece of advice you would like to give your parents?”, and “What are the sweetest things your parents do that they may not realize you appreciate?” Each of these units contain food for thought as we help our teens navigate these turbulent times.

For example, teens offered several comments regarding what they see as unnecessary worrying by their parents. Among them are:

  • “They expect me to be as smart as my brother.”
  • “They ask too many questions.”
  • “They think you have to save the entire country of Darfur to get into Yale.”

We may think that we’re showing our teens how much we care by posing many queries when they get home, but they may wish to relax and not feel like they’re being grilled. Similarly, we’re just trying to be helpful by letting them know what they’re facing in the college process, but they may be stressed out already and not want to discuss it yet again at the dinner table.

All too often, we may think we know what our kids are thinking, but we can be way off base. That’s why it’s helpful to hear the advice they offer to all parents. For example,

  • “There’s a difference between pressure and motivation.”
  • “Please listen instead of thinking up the next thing you’re going to say,”
  • “Ask about my life, not just my grades. Say, ‘How are you?’”

It can be extremely difficult having a teen in the house. (That may be one of my greatest understatements ever.) Their moodiness and seemingly ever-changing personalities can test the patience of a saint, and in our desire to keep open every door open for them or respond after they have said something particularly cutting, we can misstep. We’re constantly walking on eggshells, and sometimes a seemingly innocuous comment can catalyze an eruption. That’s why it’s crucial that we constantly show them we care even when we’re frustrated.

The final question in this section may be the most positively practical. Just as a seemingly innocent remark can cause a shockingly negative response, a small kind gesture can go a long way. Among the things parents do that may go a long way with our children are the following:

  • “When my favorite kind of ice cream just appears in the freezer.”
  • “My dad watches The Walking Dead AND Family Guy with me.
  • “She texts me before a test, Good luck, I love you, instead of texting after How did you do?

Sometimes, it really is the little things that can go a long way, and we may not even realize their import until later.

In our conversation at Keystone last week, we shared things that have worked in our own parenting and some things that we would not recommend. Dr. Mogel’s book provided a great jumping off point for our discussion, and I want to thank Ms. Raymer and Dr. Shapiro for convening the group and choosing the book. If we can all bear in mind what we so often say to our own children, “it’s not always what you say, but how you say it,” we may find navigating the years of adolescence a little easier and more pleasant.