Tough Times, Resistance, and Establishing Empathy
So, here we are. Having a “talk.” How did we get here?
1. Your teenager did something that wasn’t cool.
2. You found out.
3. You are now confronting them about the behavior.
You started out the conversation by explaining some defects of the teenage brain (see Lesson 4). So now, you need a smooth way to transition to the real topic of the conversation: the unacceptable behavior that occured.
Dun Dun Dun …
Yes, this means it’s finally time to tell your teen that you found weed in his room. Or that you know she lied to you about where she went last night. Or that you saw some posts on social media that are not okay. Or whatever the issue is that you want to talk about.
Of course, when you introduce this issue to your teenager, you are most likely going to get a strong defensive reaction.
• “I can’t believe you looked through my stuff!”
• “This is ridiculous, Mom.”
• “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
So, before you introduce the topic of the conversation (which we will cover more specifically next lesson), you have to do something that will reduce defensiveness.
Studies show that one of the most effective ways to do this is to create a strong empathic connection with your teenager before you bring up the topic.
Here’s how this will look: You’re going to make a quick statement that shows you understand how hard the teenage years can be. You might explain that you’d forgotten how difficult it was to be a teenager, but learning about the adolescent brain made you remember how bad it was.
Don’t overthink it. This can literally be as simple as, “I’m sorry. I know this time of life can be really tough.”
If you want, you can throw in a couple sentences along the lines of, “I remember when I was your age and my parents wouldn’t let me date this boy who drove a motorcycle and I was furious. I threw a huge fit. I couldn’t understand how they could be so unfair. Trust me, I know this time is not easy at all, and I appreciate how hard you are trying.”
But be careful here …
Don’t Claim to Know too Much
You want to show that you empathize with your teen. But you don’t want to say, “I understand how you feel,” or, “I know exactly what you are going through,” because you really don’t.
One of the most common complaints teens make about their parents is, “They just don’t understand me.” Teenagers are really sensitive to this and strongly resist adults who claim to know what’s going on inside of their heads. Instead of, “I know how you feel,” you can try something like, “I can imagine that must be really difficult,” or, “I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with this stuff when I was your age—it sounds so hard!”
This way, you can prove to your teen that you empathize with them, without triggering a defensive reaction. It’s a fine line to walk and generally less is more. So, don’t overdo it here.
After explaining the brain science and establishing empathy, you are now finally ready to introduce your teen to the actual topic of the conversation: a specific problem behavior. But the way you transition to this topic is critical.
I’ve found that your teen will be significantly more receptive to the message if you completely remove the blame as you introduce the topic. How do you accomplish this? That’s what we’ll cover next in Lesson 6. I’ll see you there!
There is also an additional trick for establishing empathy—i.e., using the Five Levels of Validation. So, if you want to dive deeper, listen to this podcast episode featuring Lianna Tsangarides.
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