It wasn’t the first party I had been to.
In fact, I had been to lots of parties before this one.
But this is the first one I drank at.
It had all the necessary ingredients for youthful adventure and stupidity: Lots of unsupervised teenagers, miles of forest, a bond fire, bb guns, and of course a keg.
This was the last day of school for the year and the celebration was a classic campout party in the mountains.
I returned home the next day and was met by my dad in the driveway. This was not uncommon. He asked me how the party was. I said, “Great.”
He asked me if there was drinking. I said, “Yes.” He asked me if I drank. I didn’t hesitate. I said, “Yes.”
There are years of backstory that I have to gloss over to set this stage, but a quick flyover is my dad had invested countless hours cultivating a relationship of respect and trust.
I knew my dad loved me and I knew he trusted me.
I had earned that trust and it was repeatedly extended.
I believed at that moment that I could be honest and things would be ok.
So what was my dad’s next move?
He asked another question.
He asked questions because he knew that an open and trusting relationship was about all we had for the next few years until I left for college.
He knew threats and lectures were only going to shut me down or push me away.
The best parenting advice I can give … Ask your kids open-ended questions.
Not sarcastic questions that condemn.
Not rhetorical questions that insult.
Open questions that allow us to understand them and more importantly connect with them. No teen, or any kid for that matter, wants to be lectured or threatened – THEY WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD.
Of course, you might not like their boyfriend.
Of course, you think smoking pot is a bad idea.
Of course, you disapprove of them skipping class.
Ask them why or what or how long or under what circumstances would they choose otherwise. Don’t close the door of opportunity to say something they already know you believe.
Surprise them by asking questions and then make your best attempt to understand them.
“By the sounds of it, you really like his sense of humor.”
“It sounds like you smoked to relieve some of your stress.”
“So you believed being there for your friend in their time of need was important?”
You don’t have to agree in order to express understanding. Don’t act like an alien and pretend you have never done something like them or can’t fathom what it was like to be a teenager. Relate to them and then slowly move towards potential alternatives.
I witness it every day in my office when a mom or a dad launches into a lecture about their son or daughter’s poor choices, believing that their words will motivate their teen and create lasting change.
It rarely works.
The teen glosses over and demonstrates their disappointment that their parent doesn’t relate to them. Mom and dad are saying what they believe they have to say. This is where most parents make the wrong turn. They tell versus ask. They threaten without seeking understanding.
If they do ask a question, they usually pounce all over the teen and tear apart their answer while failing to understand that the teen has no incentive in being honest.
Why would they tell the truth if it only leads to judgment and consequences?
Asking your kids questions doesn’t solve all your parenting challenges. There are situations that require consequences and there are times where teaching is necessary. However, skipping over a heartfelt Q & A session is costly. Relate to your kids whenever you can. You are not giving them the green light to repeat their poor choices. You are building a relationship that will have more clout when you lack control in the latter years. Asking questions gives us and our kids time to de-escalate if we are anxious or flustered. Treat them like you love them and treat them like you’d want to be treated. If you made a mistake at work or with one of your friends I doubt you’d want to be lectured or threatened. Of course not. You would want your boss or friend to ask you what happened so you had a chance to be understood.
Asking questions is less likely to make your child defensive.
Asking questions helps them think critically about their choices and perhaps leads them to some insight about themselves.
Check your emotions and keep them at bay. If you care about your child then put your time and energy into your response.
Learn to ask questions that help guide them in the direction you want them to go without threatening or harming the relationship.
My dad followed up my confession with another brilliant question. “Well, what did you think?”
He could have launched into all the facts and threats of teenage drinking. He could have threatened to take away my car, ground me, or try to scare me into not drinking again.
He didn’t do any of that.
He didn’t let his discomfort or concerns for me get in the way of a meaningful and timely conversation that set the stage for the next few years of our relationship.
If you’re struggling to communicate with your teen – come in and see us! We know how hard it is – because we have been there! We will work with your family to restore the relationship and bring you to a place of harmony and understanding.
You can call our office at (970) 490-1309, or book an appointment online.