When you feel you are being attacked, what is the natural thing to do? Get defensive! Everyone gets defensive if they feel someone is coming at them in an attacking posture. Teens amplify this automatic reaction. For one, they are more likely to interpret social interactions as an attack, especially from parents, and especially if the relationship with that parent has been a struggle. Also, they are prone to being defensive because they feel powerless in the family, like they have to fight for whatever control they might be able to gain. Also, they are trying to become autonomous (which is natural and good) so when adults try to correct their behavior, their thinking, their views, etc, they subconsciously feel their autonomy is threatened. All this means it can be hard to correct a teen sometimes without getting them fighting you. Often the “fighting” is actually a defense; just like the cannons would be lit up at Fort Knox if they were under attack. Your teen easily misinterprets your good intended parenting as a first shot fired and then releases all the fire power they have back at you in a fight or flight response.
The biggest problem you have when your teen feels threatened by your correction/coaching/steering is that they cannot receive what you’re trying to give them. That’s a huge problem since you are their closest ally on earth and want to give them the essential skills, wisdom, and discipline needed to succeed at life. Once that guard goes up, teachability comes down. No one receives new information when their guard is up – they try to discredit new information when their guard is up.
Try approaching talks with your teen with this priority – keeping their defenses down. Too often our priority is to get our point across or to change the teen. That’s not a good way to approach someone so volatile. It’s really not best practice in talking to anyone. Try making your first and foremost goal getting around the defenses. If the point still comes across even though it’s not as blunt and clear, you still have more chance of influencing your teen because the defenses were down.
I’m about to help you transform the way you train up your teenager – IF you will practice the strategies below. These are not only helpful for teens, but for every relationship in your life. It might even bless your communication with your spouse! Some of these strategies are anti-intuitive and will require practice. I recommend role playing with your coparent until it becomes natural to you. Then see how it works with your teenager.
- Make sure your number one priority is Keeping That Guard Down. If this is the focus you will automatically be more relatable.
- Ask for permission before sharing any advice or before a teaching/correcting moment. This gives the teen a little control. If they say ‘no’ then leave it alone, at least for now, so they really do feel you are giving them some control. Example: “I see you are crazy about this music. May I share with you a couple of concerns I have about music selections?”
- Keep your own emotions and intensity low. One of the best ways to make a teen feel they are being attacked is to be emotional or intense. Go for nonchalant, even when you are very serious about the subject. You can be both clear and nonemotional at the same time. You do not need the emotional intensity as much as you think you do to get across to your teen. Let your “no” mean no and your “yes” mean yes, and your teen will eventually get used to knowing dad doesn’t have to be screaming or angry to mean what he says – he always means what he says.
- Keep the conversation about you when it’s touchy. Use “I feel” statements. Never attack! Don’t let the conversation get personal. Stay on principle. For example:
😠 “Your music is constantly filling your head with sex, drug, and alcohol.”
😉”I like music a lot too, and I have found through the years that music is powerful. It powerfully affects my thoughts and the way I feel.”
- Compliment. When we try to steer teens, it feels like a vote of in-confidence in them. They are already insecure about themselves, and then comes the well-meaning parents who says something meant to improve and guide, but what they hear at the heart level is “You’re failing,” or some version of that fear. Combat that with smothering them with heartfelt compliments. Call out any success and good decisions you can find to highlight. Too often parents are focused on fixing what’s not right instead of naming the things the teen is doing well. You will be more effective with positive feedback than negative.
- If it’s an especially touchy and confrontational conversation, try writing a letter first and then read it with them or sit with them while they read it.
- Be non-reactive. This ties back into number 3. One way our emotions start to take over the conversation is when the teen says something that triggers us. They know what our buttons are. They have spent their whole life studying their parent, and some of them even strategize “if I can get mom or dad emotional then I can discredit them and what they are saying, because clearly they are just being crazy again.” Don’t be a victim of your young person’s brilliant strategy. REFUSE to react. Take time before opening your mouth after they say something. Count to 5 or have your less reactive spouse beside you to put their hand on your shoulder as a reminder to stay cool.
- Try warning them. This is an interesting strategy that usually works extremely well for me as a helping professional. It’s unclear to me yet whether this will work for a parent, but I’m interested to know your results with this one. It goes like this:
“Ok, I want you to try something with me. I need to say something to you that I think would really benefit you. The problem is I don’t know anyway I could say it without it triggering a defense reflex. I need you to think ahead before I say this and determine to not get defensive. I promise I’m not attacking you, I’m just putting a principle out there for your consideration. But your subconscious will automatically want to start shooting me and my statement down and if that happens you won’t be able to benefit from what I’m saying. It may not be easy to resist the defensive reflex, but can you try?”
9. Emphasize their choice: “I know you could chose to ignore this.” If you are acknowledge their choice first, they may not feel the need to let you know that they have the choice to ignore you.
Chances are most if not all of these ideas are counter-intuitive for you. It will take practice. Try it with your spouse in a role play before trying it on your teen. You may need to build some new mental muscle memory. If you fail, don’t give up. Keep trying. The principles are sound even if they don’t work magic every time.