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'Teenage as a Second Language': Q&A With Author Barbara Greenberg, PhD
Fine. Whatever. I don't care. That's the opening to "Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual," a how-to guide for frustrated parents everywhere.
In the book, psychologists Barbara Greenberg and Jennifer Powell-Lunder posit that teens "make healthier decisions, cope better with peer pressure and have higher self-esteem" when parents talk to them about sensitive subjects like sex and drugs. Kind of hard to do when your children don't want to talk to you. ParentDish spoke with co-author Greenberg who says, "There are a lot of secrets that teens won't tell you, which is why we wrote the book." An edited version of the interview follows.
ParentDish: Teenagers seem to be getting younger every year. Does this mean we have to have those dreaded talks earlier?
Barbara Greenberg: As a parent, you can't suddenly start having good dialogue with your kids when they become teens. You have to start talking to them when they're very young so you set the tone of what the relationship is going to be like and so you set a high quality of trust. It's really a myth to think that once they become teenagers you can change everything.
PD: What about parents who didn't start young?
BG: There are a lot of misconceptions. First is that they don't want to talk to you. The fact is that they do want to talk to you; they just want to control the timing and style of the dialogue. The second misconception is that they don't care what you think. The fact is they care very much what you think, even more now than when they were younger. The third thing is the reason that they lie and withhold information is not because they're bad kids but because they don't want to be embarrassed or disappoint parents.
PD: Any advice on how to get teens to talk?
BG: Teenagers don't like direct requests for information. "How was your day?" goes over like a lead balloon because it's too direct, and also, because it's not a precise question. Their day's not over because they're probably on Facebook and texting until about 9 or 10 o'clock.
"How was the party?" is too direct because the kids know [what you're really asking]. I remember with my teenagers when I said "How was the party?" what I really meant was, "Were you guys smoking pot there?"
PD: Can you give an example of an indirect question?
BG: When my daughter would go out to the movies with a guy I wouldn't say, "How was the date?" I would say, "How was the movie?" It was indirect and she could control how much information she would give me. But then she'd start spilling, "I'm not sure I like him ..." They have to control the kind and the amount of disclosure.
PD: What if the parent doesn't like what he or she is hearing?
BG: Kids are most likely to talk if parents are not emotionally over-reactive. If you say you're not going to become angry and you really stick to that, they will disclose. But if you want them not to talk to you, become emotional.
PD: How involved should parents be in their teenager's life?
BG: You want to know about their safety -- where they are, what they're up to, if they're hanging out with the right group of kids, if they're making good choices. But you really don't need to know who they have crushes on, who they think is hot or who's dating who.
PD: Why not?
BG: That's another well-kept secret: Kids don't want parents to be their friends. They're humiliated if you pick them up from a party wearing really low-rise jeans and some top that shows your tummy. I know because I did it once. I got into deep trouble.
PD: What about parents who try to speak the current teen slang?
BG: Part of being a teenager is establishing your own identity, so these are words that let them be teenagers. When the parents start [speaking teen slang] it's like they're competing [with their teen]. It's embarrassing to the kids. Parents should not engage in this because that's being a friend and kids want parents.
PD: Can you talk about body language?
BG: Eighty percent of communication is nonverbal. Anything a teen says can mean something different based on the accompanying nonverbal behavior. You know the whole scenario where a kid doesn't want to talk and the parent follows the kid to his room [and] tries to go into the bedroom? The kid just needs some space. They will talk to you, but it has to be at the right time.
PD: Any other nonverbal examples?
BG: We always point our body in the direction we want our conversation to go. So if we're having a conversation with our teens and their body is pointing toward the door, it means they want to be someplace else. Pay attention to where their focus is. Say, "It seems like you don't want to talk now but later, if you're in the mood, I'll be available."
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