Talking with teen-agers is different from talking with younger children. Adolescents bring to their conversations with adults an evolving awareness of their own identity, definite opinions, no tolerance for hypocrisy and a strong need for privacy.
"Teens are people with understanding and sensitivity, and they need to be spoken to in a straight-arrow way," says Joseph N. Feinstein, host and co-producer of "Teen Talk," a syndicated program airing Saturdays at 6 a.m. on KHJ-TV (Channel 9). Feinstein is also a marriage, family and child therapist in private practice in Sherman Oaks, a school guidance counselor and has been a high school teacher for 29 years, most of them at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley.
Feinstein finds that teen-agers respond best to honest statements by adults.
"No baloney, no hiding, no copping out," he says. "They are very sensitive to the truth and falsity of statements. Just as you can't pull the wool over the eyes of a child if you're a magician because children never look in the direction they're supposed to look. The same is true with teen-agers."
"I-statements" work best with teen-agers, as they do in other human interactions. By saying: "I want, I need, I feel," rather than "you ought, you should, you must," you minimize putting them in a defensive position.
Even though there are values and ethics you feel very strongly about as a parent, Feinstein says, you can only hope your child will also subscribe to your values. By putting him in a defensive position, you will not accomplish that as readily.
Both mother and father must speak to the teen-ager as one voice, according to Feinstein.
"Very often kids have learned manipulative ways to separate Mom and Dad. They talk to Mom and get one answer and get a diametrically opposed response from Dad, creating more havoc."
Feinstein suggests that if the parents do not agree on a particular issue, whoever was asked first and whatever answer was given first should be backed up by the other parent, at least until both parents have a chance to discuss a possible change.
Feinstein feels strongly that listening skills should be taught in the schools, so that teen-agers and parents learn to really hear what the other is saying.
"Parents also need to learn how to listen with 'the third ear,' which gives you more compassion and understanding," he says. "The hidden agenda of what young people want to say and mean is a lot more powerful than the actual words they use."
A good time to converse with your teen-ager is when he or she is getting ready to go to sleep. At that time they are relaxed and there's no place to "get away." Feinstein suggests that another good time is when the young person arrives home from school.
"Parents, even if they are not at home and available physically," Feinstein says, "could perhaps arrange to call their child or have their child call them at 3:30 or 3:45 in the afternoon. They could take their work break then in order to make contact after the kid has spent the whole day listening to teachers and participating in school events."
Other tips include not making generalizations about your teen-ager, not lumping him in with all the others of his age group and having respect for him by giving him a chance to save face when with his friends.
"Admonishing a teen-agers in front of his friends is not very caring," Feinstein says.
Instead of always asking questions, engage the youngster in conversation by talking about some of your experiences of the day. Engage him or her by such things as "tell me about school today," or "tell me about your English class," open-ended but confined.
Give and Take
"To receive talk you've got to give talk," Feinstein reminds. "Parents often are seeking answers to what the kid did without really giving the kid insight as to what they do. It's give and take."
In some other societies, children are raised by their uncles and aunts, Feinstein says, and he thinks it's a good idea to encourage our relatives or friends to be confidants for our teen-agers.
"Sometimes our own close relationship is interrupted for a time during adolescence for one reason or another, and it can be helpful for the kids to have other adults to confide in."
Seek Outside Help
Consulting a professional therapist, psychologist or social worker can be a good idea if the communication gap is too wide for parent and teen-ager to cross without help.
"You often have to think of holding onto children much the way you hold onto mercury," Feinstein explains. "Mercury, if you squeeze it, is going to ooze out on both sides. The only way to hold it is to keep your hand open and let the mercury gently come into your palm and lie there. It's kind of like holding butterflies."