Full Show Notes
Anyone who works in a team knows that proper communication can be a nightmare for adults, but communicating with teenagers is a whole different ballgame! How many times have you wanted to talk to your child about something small, but it somehow blew up into a huge argument? This can happen when parents and their children don’t have the best communication practices in order. It’s no one’s intention to get into an argument, but sometimes the small stuff can turn into a screaming match. That’s where Buddhist thinking can offer some sage advice…
Mindfulness and listening techniques encourage us to take a step back and better understand how communicating with teenagers can become confrontational. Maybe your child is just having a bad day and they’ve been stuck in a defensive mood to cope with it. Perhaps you didn’t realize you used a sharp tone by accident. In any case, it’s important to understand why communicating with teenagers can get out of hand so easily.
While teens are still growing up, hormonal and social changes in their lives can make it harder to navigate problems with a level head. One wrong word might prompt a heated outburst! This hair-trigger mindset can complicate even the simplest ways of communicating with teenagers.
Before you know it, you’re getting pulled into their emotionally-charged, surface-level vocabulary of insults. If you ground them, you’re drawing out spans of resentment without improving communication habits. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Cynthia Kane, author of How to Communicate Like a Buddhist and Talk to Yourself Like a Buddhist has some techniques that can help you master the art of communicating with teenagers.
I spoke with Cynthia about communicating with teenagers this week to better understand why conversations with your teen can get out of control. In her own life, Cynthia’s search for the Bodhisattva –a person dedicated to helping others ease their suffering– led her on a journey to become one herself. As a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor, she’s taught tens of thousands of people to speak with kindness, honesty, and confidence through her books. If anyone knows about communicating with teenagers, it’s Cynthia.
Cynthia’s work has appeared in several esteemed publications, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Yoga Journal, Self Magazine, and Woman’s Day Magazine. Through her bestselling DailyOM courses, workshops, and Intentional Communication Training Program, she has helped thousands of others transform how they are communicating with teenagers, so I was especially excited to hear what she had to say about communicating with teenagers.
In our interview, we talk about three central aspects to Cynthia’s approach:
By using these Buddhist principles of Right Speech, Cynthia walked me through how we can speak to ourselves and others in positive, reaffirming ways. I knew the Buddha was knowledgeable, but who would have guessed Buddhist teachings had so much to say about communicating with teenagers?
Let’s Talk About Self-Talk
The first step of Cynthia’s Bodhisattva approach to communicating with teenagers is to listen to yourself. Though practicing honesty can be found throughout Cynthia’s entire method of communication, she says that it’s important to start with your own truths. Self-awareness really is the beginning of being able to interact with others in a more compassionate way.
Unfortunately, many teens don’t yet have the experience to reflect on how everyone is feeling in the moment let alone take stock of their emotional status. They aren’t always able to observe your intentions, so they act out or behave disrespectfully, causing conversations to escalate to a place that no one wants. In this way, when parents understand self-talk and can demonstrate their feelings clearly, communication gets a whole lot smoother.
For example, when parents and teenagers bottle up how they feel about a certain behavior, they’ll play the game of saying, “Nothing’s wrong,” when we know that’s not true. Using that phrase to dance around an issue that is clearly of importance can only muddy the waters and prevent you from effectively communicating with teenagers. This is why honesty and self-reflection are so important. When you listen to yourself, you can be more honest about how you feel and effectively cut through harmful defensive verbiage.
We often avoid our own negative feelings because they’re too uncomfortable to deal with, and this can block productive meaningful conversation from occurring. By listening to ourselves, we can start to become aware of the restrictive language that we implement when communicating with teenagers.
To hear about how Speech and Silence play into communication with teenagers, don’t forget to listen to the whole episode!
What is Restrictive Language?
Restrictive language is the kind of verbiage that causes us to feel stressed, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and even incapable. As a parent, listening to yourself is how you can catch when you have this negative mindset.
Cynthia mentions that this is an aspect of communicating with teenagers that a lot of parents are unaware of, but can make a huge impact at home. Once you’ve identified restrictive language in how you think, you can be more present when communicating with teenagers and have a genuine of conversation. Negativity is a total buzzkill when it comes to communication with teenagers.
Don’t Forget––Listening is Part of Communication!
Listening maintains several effective applications that you can implement as a parent while trying to communicate with your teenager. For one, listening to others improves your ability to notice when you’re not being present, like when you’re shopping at the grocery or are too self-involved in an argument. These situations can cause you to tune out details when communicating with teenagers.
There’s so Much More!
In practice, Kane’s insights help people more truthfully focus on their individual needs and build avenues of communication. These are crucial areas for parents to focus on if they want to improve and understand the relationship they have with their teen.
Empathy and honesty are amazing tools for building trust between parents and teenagers, but, just like many other methods of communication, they need to be practiced. It all begins with an acute awareness of one’s own self-talk, and Kane offers a unique process to communicate your needs and wants more openly.
In addition to canes special approach to communications listeners will discover:
- Why silence is a key part of effective communication
- Shutting down toxic teenage gossip
- The importance of different kinds of speech in our everyday lives
- How to combat the “shoulds” and “coulds” that lead parents to compare themselves to others
- The different (over)uses of sorry and the power of apologizing
- Managing talk that creates feelings of “less than” or “greater than”
I’m thankful that Cynthia shared her insight with us this week about Buddhist-inspired strategies for communicating with teenagers. She has an abundance of wisdom for parents to learn from, and amazing, practical tools to help structure effective communication with teenagers. I found Cynthia’s Bodhisattva practices to be warm and enlightening and I know you will, too!
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Stop a gossipy teen with:
“I hear what you’re saying. I understand you must feel [this way]. And I’m not really interested in hearing these types of things about your friends; I don’t think it’s helpful. I’m happy to hear about how things are going, but when it’s material that’s just hurtful.”-Cynthia Kane
2. When you find your mind wandering:(Members Only)
3. Words to say to get present:(Members Only)
4. How to apologize after losing your cool:(Members Only)
5. When your teen bails on you to go meet up with friends:(Members Only)
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Write Down Your Shoulds:We can all get caught up in things we ‘should’ be doing. We ‘should’ always be early, we ‘should’ never yell, we ‘should’ eat healthy 100% of the time. One of the exercises Cynthia explicitly mentioned is to compile a list of your ‘shoulds.’ On a piece of paper or in digital note, jot down 15 of your most common ‘shoulds.’ Looking at the list, reflect on how it might feel to replace the word ‘should’ with ‘could’ for each instance. (You may have to change the syntax of the sentence for some!) Notice how different each one reads now. Instead of feeling guilty, you may see that these are now framed as choices that you might make, rather than things you ‘must’ or ‘have to’ do. Next time you hear yourself using ‘should’ replace it with a could. Try this practice for one week and then journal on if you felt any differences at the end of the week.
2. Enlist Your Teen in Keeping You Present:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: The book is How to Communicate like a Buddhist, and it’s an instruction manual for clear communication. So I read this book, it’s a quick little book. It’s just jampacked with great advice and sage wisdom that is helpful for anybody. I found a ton of stuff in here that’s useful in business and friendships and all kinds of relationships, but definitely a lot of things reading this book that hit me as being really, really important for parents and especially for parents of teenagers, because that’s what we talk about here. So I just found this super insightful and super helpful. So I was really curious how you became this Buddhist communication expert and what was your path to then creating this book?
Cynthia: So this all came about really unexpectedly for me. I used to be a horrible communicator. I was extremely passive aggressive and was very, very reactionary. I had a lot of judgment in my interactions and just had a hard time with silence and really being comfortable within interaction really. I was in a relationship for about seven and a half years. He was my first love. We decided to go our separate ways and then believing that we would be able to come back together at the time when it was right. We did come back together and we had conversation around what wasn’t working within our relationship and so much of it had to do with communication. So we decided, “Okay, let’s see if we can come back together again.” Then a few months later he passed away unexpectedly.
Cynthia: He was a river guide and he was from Costa Rica. He got caught in a swell and he drowned. It changed my life really forever. It was in this place of just emptiness that I realized that I was going to have to find out how to enjoy my time here. I went on this search to figure out how to feel better in the world. It led me to a meditation and writing workshop at the Shambhala Institute in New York. That was where I was introduced to the elements of right speech in Buddhism, which are to tell the truth, don’t exaggerate, don’t gossip and use helpful language.
Cynthia: When I was introduced to those elements, I thought to myself, “This is my path.” This is the way out of suffering because what what I found for me was that it all came down to how I communicated. If I wanted to shift the way I was living in the world, that meant I was going to have to change how I interacted with it, which then meant I had to change how I interacted with other people, which then meant I had to figure out how to communicate with myself differently.
Cynthia: So once I was introduced to the elements of right speech in Buddhism, it became this experiment, this lifestyle experiment of how do I then put this into practice. So that’s really what I have cultivated a practice to implementing the elements of right speech, so how do you actually speak in a kind, honest, and helpful way. That’s what the book is about. I began writing about this topic and the practice itself, which I call intentional communication. Then editor from a publishing company saw what I was working on and asked if I was interested in writing a book and I said, “I would love to.” Then it became this series of How to Communicate like a Buddhist and then Talk to Yourself like a Buddhist, and my next book is coming out in the end of April, How to Meditate like a Buddhist. So I work with people and I train people how to shift the way that they communicate into this more responsive instead of reactive place.
Andy: You talk about this story in the book, this experience of your friend in Costa Rica and this really unexpected passing away. There’s a term that you use called bodhisattva. What does that mean?
Cynthia: Yeah. A bodhisattva is someone who is here to commit to relieving the suffering of others, and that is what I was really seeking. I was really looking for someone to come in to my life to make me feel better in that moment, and that’s when I realized it wasn’t possible that it really had to come from me. So I ended up seeking out the qualities of a person who commits to relieving suffering of others, the bodhisattva path, and started to see if I could incorporate those qualities within my life.
Andy: So I like where you go with it in this book, you break it up into three sections. There’s the self-talk and then the speech, how to talk more mindfully and then silence and when do you silence. You also break up the listening part into listening to yourself and listening to others, which I thought was really, really insightful because it starts with listening to yourself. So how do you do that, and where do people get caught up with that?
Cynthia: So listening to ourselves is, I mean, it really is the beginning of being able to interact with others in a more compassionate way. It’s really starting to become aware of the language that you’re using that is causing you to feel badly or causing you to feel stress or overwhelm, or causing you to feel discomfort in any way and starting to pay attention to the language you’re using. Once you’re aware of how you’re talking to yourself, then you can begin to dive a little deeper into shifting it. The other piece of listening to yourself is really listening to that voice inside that often we gloss over, we don’t really pay attention to. It’s beginning to trust yourself again so that you know that what it is that you have to say is valuable, what it is that you have to say is necessary. Because so often it’s very easy for us to think we don’t need to say something or maybe we’re overreacting, or maybe it’s really not that big of a deal.
Cynthia: When we start to listen to ourself, we can really begin to see that our needs are valuable enough to be met. At first really begins with paying attention to the language that you’re using, any language that I should be doing this, any absolute language of I’m always late or I’ve never been good at these things. It’s all language that constricts us that contracts us that subtracts from us, and it doesn’t allow us to grow or change.
Andy: I love some of the tips that you have in here. The should actually was one that I specifically had marked down because I love this idea of taking the shoulds and changing them to coulds. I think this is such a big thing for parents, because it’s so easy to look at everyone else’s family and everyone always just looks so perfect from the outside. There’s so many shoulds just hitting you from all directions as a parent I think, and you’re constantly second guessing whether you’re doing it right or whether you should be doing something differently to doing something better. So how do you start noticing those things and shifting the voice in your head?
Cynthia: Yeah, it’s so true, I mean, so I have two children. There’s that doubt in the constant questioning, right? I should be burping them right now, I mean, I know they’re young, but.
Andy: Wow. So once a kid already got into whatever and they’re already starting this and my kid’s only doing whatever.
Cynthia: Yeah, exactly right. So it really is committing each day to saying to yourself, “Okay, today I’m going to notice when I am comparing myself to other people when I am using the word should,” but also there’s a subtle language in our heads that we don’t even notice that saying I need to be or I have to be as well as I should be. So it’s starting to notice also who you’re around when you use the word should and really starting to carve out maybe at least. If you can five minutes to write down all the shoulds that you think, so taking a piece of paper and writing down 15, 20 shoulds, and then going through and doing the exercise of saying, “Okay, I could be feeding my kid in all vegan diets,” and instead I’m choosing to introduce them to different food, right? What you’re starting to begin to see is that you have a choice and you’re putting your attention somewhere else. So there’s really no reason to be upset because it’s a decision that you’re making, right? It’s taking the control back and the power back.
Andy: Yeah, and recognizing that it’s a choice that somewhere along the line, you’ve chosen to do it this way. You chose not to be the president of the PTA. If you really want to do that, you could overdo it, yeah. I think that’s so powerful.
Andy: The other one you talked about was the always and the nevers, which I think is for parents, especially it can really get to, “Man, it seems I’m always having this same fight with the kid,” or always late or the patterns take a long time to change. Sometimes it can just feel you’re beating your head against the wall and you’re never getting anywhere. What do you do when you find those thoughts surfacing or bubbling around in your head?
Cynthia: I mean, I think it’s using those moments as your cues to start talking to yourself differently in that moment and that it becomes something that happens. Maybe it’s happened once and then in your mind, it’s always fighting to get out the door in the morning just to say. You can shift the language so you can say, “Today it took a long time for us to get out the door, tomorrow will be different.” So you want to start bringing it so that it’s relative language and it’s not absolute. So you start saying that today this happened and tomorrow can be different, and that helps detach from that feeling that things are going to continue in the same way over and over and over again and there’s no opportunity or room to change. Then also in those moments, reminding yourself that this is adolescence, or this is what happens developmentally at these stages can be helpful, too.
Andy: One more thing I love from the chapter on listening to yourself is the idea of nothing and how we often say nothing’s wrong or that we’re fine when we don’t really mean that or that’s not really how we feel. So why is this in the chapter on listen to yourself and not in the chapter on talking and saying this is how I feel?
Cynthia: Well, it’s in the listening to yourself so that we can start to become really honest with ourselves. I think often what happens is we pretend that everything is fine because we want everything to be fine, and again, it should be fine. Everyone else is fine, so it should be fine. We should be able to handle all of this.
Andy: Yeah, I shouldn’t be so worked up about this.
Cynthia: Right. So it really comes down to getting quiet and going inward to be able to see what do I really want, right, what do I really need, how do I really want to be interacting, how can I start to trust myself more. So that’s why it’s really in the listening to yourself because you have to be able to get quiet and really see that being honest with yourself is the key to interacting in the way that is going to be helpful to you and to others.
Andy: Yeah. You can never be honest with other people about it until you can be honest with yourself about it, I guess. You have to be self-aware before you can then go tell other people about it.
Cynthia: Yeah, and to be able to know exactly what needs to happen instead of tiptoeing around things or not really expressing about or being able to be consistent.
Andy: So then after listening to yourself, then you talk about listening to others. There’s a lot of great stuff in here. I think this is one of the big things for parents. We can all be better listeners. It’s so easy to be planning in your head what you’re going to be saying next, or thinking about something stressful that happened today while you’re you in the middle of a conversation, or realize that your kid was trying to tell you something then you just haven’t been paying attention for the past 30 seconds because you were thinking about something else. So how do you get better at noticing that and bringing yourself back when that happens?
Cynthia: It’s a lot like meditation. So with meditation you said and you watch your thoughts coming in and out. When you notice that you’re caught up in this story or you notice that a thought is taking you to another thought that then has you, thinking about tomorrow and 10 years from now or what didn’t happen, you notice that you’re distracted and you say, “Okay, thanks for sharing.” Then you come back to your point of focus and meditation, which could be your breath, could be a mantra. It could be many different things. So within conversation, it’s the same. So it’s being in communication and noticing that you’re no longer there. It’s that moment that you noticed that you’re not there, which is such a beautiful moment because then you get to redirect. So then you notice, “Okay, I am over here planning what’s happening next week. I want to be with my child right now. I’m just going to say thanks for sharing. I see that distraction.” Then I’m going to come back to my point of focus, which is the conversation I’m having with my son or my daughter.
Cynthia: Then when you’re back in the present moment, you remind yourself that here is my child. I love them. I want to be helpful to them. I want to support them. I want to give them the opportunity to share with me and the same way that I love the opportunity to share with them. So then that grounds you back into their present moment and reminds you of your intention, which is to really help yourself and the other suffer less. To do that, it’s by being present with your attention.
Andy: Yeah, I like this little scene you have in here where you are at the grocery store and you’re just thinking about something that happened earlier. Say, “Standing between the broccoli and me, Brian put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘We’re in the grocery store now, whatever happened in class, let it go. We’re here now.'” Sometimes it’s easier to notice in somebody else that they’re distracted than it is to notice it in yourself. So it’s nice to have someone to be your partner in reminding each other about these things or helping each other do this, this communication practice.
Cynthia: Yeah. I think the one piece to that is making sure that we’re open to hearing that and not taking it as a criticism, right, or a judgment.
Andy: Well, yes, because that’s another thing that I love about this chapter on listening to others. You have this section on page 96, where you talk about how a lot of times when you’re in a conversation with somebody and they make a comment like, “Why are you getting so defensive,” or, “Can you let me finish?” It’s just so hard not to lash out at them or fire back with something, “I’m not defensive. I’m dah, dah, dah, dah,” right? So you talk about though that actually a lot of times, the reason that we react like that is because on some level we feel they’re right or there’s some truth to what they’re saying, I guess.
Cynthia: Yeah. I think that what is so helpful in this moment is to accept what is true and that is really difficult to do. In that moment when I’m in the grocery store and Bryan is saying, “You’re here in the grocery store now,” it takes all my energy to be able to say, “You’re right. I serve right now,” right?
Andy: Oh, no. I’m not distracted. I’m fine. I’m good.
Cynthia: Right. That comes back to what we were talking about before, right, in that moment. So easy to say, “I’m fine. It’s not a big deal.”
Andy: Nothing’s wrong.
Cynthia: Nothing’s wrong. That’s just a lie, right? So if you follow the elements of right speech in Buddhism to tell the truth, I mean, it shifts the way that you show up, but it’s so liberating to be able to just own it and say, “You’re right.” I got really frustrated and I walked out and I shut the door and I shouldn’t have done it that way. You handle it in the moment with your son or your daughter. If you end up having an interaction, you’re not super proud of in that moment and saying, “Wow, I’m really sorry. That was really not helpful. I was really frustrated.”
Andy: Okay. Well I think what makes this particularly difficult with teenagers is that they’re not like Brian so nicely saying, “Oh, maybe here in the store. They’re saying, “Mom, you never listen to me. Why are you so distracted all the time?” Like, “Oh, you’re such a terrible listener, uh.” It’s really, it’s really hard not to get defensive and to react. So I think some of these problems they are just communication problems. When you throw a teenager into the mix, it can just blow the whole thing up.
Cynthia: Yeah, yeah. I mean, and that’s why you become more of an observer when you try to adopt this practice. Because what helps is when you feel detached from the language, you’re not as drawn into it anymore. Because you understand your responsibility within, right, within an interaction and being responsible for your words and your reactions and how you’re using silence and your body language and then the other’s responsible for those exact same things for themselves. What you have in common is the health of the conversation itself. So in those moments where your teenager is responding in that way, it takes so much energy, but the reminder there is, “Okay, I’m going to stop. I’m going to pause. I’m going to breathe, and then I’m going to remind myself that my purpose right now is to keep the entirety of the conversation intact.” To do that, it means accepting what’s true, or it means letting them know that that’s not something that you appreciate hearing or whatever your feeling may be in the moment. It does come down to really being able to detach a little bit more, which is difficult to do.
Cynthia: You’re very personally connected, very much connected to your children. So there’s a lot of work that goes on around that, too.
About Cynthia Kane
Cynthia Kane is the bestselling author of How to Communicate Like a Buddhist and Talk to Yourself Like a Buddhist. She is the founder of the Intentional Communication Institute, helping thousands of people change their way of communicating through her online courses, workshops, and certification program. A certified meditation and mindfulness instructor, Cynthia has dedicated herself to helping men and women change their communication routines so they feel more in control and understood. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Yoga Journal, Self Magazine, and Woman’s Day Magazine. Her next book, How to Meditate Like a Buddhist, is due out at the end of April.
She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Brian, and son.