Thursday 26 April 2012

Roadmap to Building Healthy Parent-Teen Communication.

By Jake Davis and Dr Lim Poh Ann

“You need to spend 15 to 20 minutes daily with your child. If you cannot spare the time, you may have to give your child away for adoption.”

Dr Lim Mee Gaik’s statement certainly raised some eyebrows at a recent Parenting Teens seminar. Organised by Focus on the Family (FOF), it was held at Gospel Hall, Petaling Jaya.

A professor at Capella University in San Antonio, Texas, Lim is a Licensed Professional Counsellor and Marriage and Family Therapist. Though she has spent more than 30 years in the US, she has not forgotten her roots – the place well known for white coffee and chicken rice, that is Ipoh, Perak. She finds it a joy to return annually to speak at FOF’s seminars. 

Rich with examples and illustrations, her lively and interactive talk kept the parents enthralled. Some of them came because they had trouble dealing with their teens.

The key principles addressed in the seminar included:
1. Create a respectful and non-blaming approach.
Parenting with a respectful approach means appreciating your child’s input. Do not talk down to your teen. After all, communication is a two-way process.
A parent’s job is more than just instructing and ordering their kids around. “Parents fall into the trap of just being ‘directors’,” Lim said. “They tell their child what to do, but they forget to be their friends.”
Healthy communication is essential to foster better friendship between parent and teen. She believes that, through this approach, teens will become more respectful and responsible as they grow up into adults. 

2. Work towards collaboration and a win-win situation.
Since parent-child communication is a two-way process, it is helpful to create an environment of collaboration. “As often as possible, parents should find opportunities to say ‘yes’ to their teens,” Lim stressed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you spoil them with expensive electronic gizmos.
When solving conflicts, create a win-win situation where both you and your teens are satisfied with the solution. For example, upon completion of their homework for the week, you take them out for a weekend movie.
3. Reinforce rules consistently.
“Disciplining a child begins with establishing consistent guidelines,” said Lim.
It is better to set a few guidelines with which they must comply; too many rules are not likely to be followed.

4. Resolve conflicts in ways that will nurture desirable behaviour.
To resolve conflict, parents should not just stop the immediate negative behaviour (for example, chiding them for bad temper) but employ creative techniques to build positive characteristics (for example, teaching them patience and self-control).
By using such “approach” techniques in conflict resolution, a conflict can become part of a teen’s learning process. “Avoidance” techniques merely communicate that negative behaviour cannot be tolerated; the teenager does not gain any long-term benefit. 

5. Decrease criticism, increase acceptance.
Parents shouldn’t just lecture their teens whenever they’re together. In fact, at least 70% of their interaction time should be positive, Lim stressed.
Highlight specifically to the child the action which pleases you. For example, “I appreciate you for keeping your room tidy.”  Do not just say, “You have been very helpful.” 

6. Build on their strengths and reward small successes with positive feedback.
Parents need to focus on their children’s strengths – be quick to compliment, rather than correct. Good behaviour has to be rewarded, not necessarily with gifts but happy times spent together which create lasting memories (for example, a fishing trip).

7. Create a “success mindset”.
 “Encourage your teenagers when they fail,” said Lim. “Teach them that failure is a great way to learn.” Just as Edison, the inventor of the electric bulb, failed many times before perfecting it, parents too must adopt a positive attitude towards failure – and impart this truth to their teens.

8. Use “I’ statements to state your requests.
What this means is that we phrase our statement somewhat like this:  “I would appreciate it if you could help me dispose the rubbish after your dinner.” This is a more respectful way to speak to your teen than saying, “Get off your butt now and dispose the rubbish.”
Don’t keep on yelling at them as they will get “sensitised” to it and shut you out. 

9. Ask open-ended questions.
Parents show that they value their teens’ opinion when they ask open-ended questions such as:  “What do you suggest that we do?” or “What do you think is the best way to solve this problem?” By doing so, parents do not appear condescending to their teens – as if they know it all.
At this juncture, Lim asked for feedback from the parents – specific examples of open-ended questions. 

10. Empower your teens by seeking their advice.
Parents should seek advice from their teens in areas where they are often more knowledgeable such as mobile technologies or social networking.
They can also farm out simple tasks to them. “When you start trusting your teens by giving them jobs and not see them as being irresponsible, they’ll live up to your expectations,” Lim said.
Empowering teens through the above actions instills in them a sense of pride and achievement.

 11. Share about your personal challenges.
To connect with your teens, be real with them. Let them know that you are human. Be honest with them; sharing your weaknesses and failures with them helps build trust. And don’t brag about your past accomplishments or what you had to endure. The latter seems to suggest, Why can’t you be like me?
Parents should learn to apologise to their teens. Apologising is not a sign of weakness. When you apologise, teens lower their guard, become less resistant and respect you more.

12. State your expectations clearly.
It is important to avoid generalities when stating expectations. Be specific when you tell them what you desire to see. For example, “I know you can set a good example for your younger sister by making your own breakfast.” Clearly stated expectations enable teens to live up to their parents’ desires.

13. Develop new ways to enjoy one another’s company.
Parents should ask themselves, “What would interest my teen? What will he or she enjoy?” Think of him or her as a friend.
“Plan something creative to keep the teenager interested,” Lim suggested. These activities might be bowling, fishing, board games or jogging. However, watching TV together is not interactive; it doesn’t build rapport.
Keeping one another educated on one’s current interests and hobbies will make time spent together interesting and meaningful. A father who shows interest in football, of which his son is an avid fan, creates opportunities for building relationships.

14. Practise active and attentive listening.
Parents need to listen attentively to their teens without interrupting them. By listening, parents show that they care for and respect their teens.
Do not give advice as this will cause them to clam up. Let them ventilate their thoughts and feelings. Empower them by letting them solve their own problems.

15. Formalise dates regularly.
Be intentional about setting aside time with your teens (separate time for each teen). One-on-one hangout time improves bonding and intimacy with your teen. Block it out in your calendar. Write it down.
When parents despite their busy schedules consistently spend time with their teens, they get the message that they are significant and esteemed in their parents’ eyes.
During question time, a father asked about how to deal with procrastination – when a teen refuses to obey instructions despite being told several times. Lim shared that parents need not fret. “You don’t have to repeat an instruction when you want your teen to do something,” said Lim. “Just state your instruction (once) clearly and calmly, look at your teen in the eye and follow through till it is done.” For example, you might say, “I want you to throw your soiled clothes into the laundry basket and not all over the room.”  Subsequently, you look at him in the eye, walk him to the place where the basket is located and see to it he deposits the clothes there. So the next time your teen procrastinates, do not fume or yell at him. Try out this assertive strategy.
Many parents were glad they took time off on a Sunday afternoon for this seminar. They have certainly been enlightened on how to connect better with their teens.
The above article was first published in Asian Beacon magazine, August 2011, issue 43.4.

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