Ep 175: Creating Open Communication

Episode Summary

Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, helps us break through our teenager’s barriers to have vulnerable conversations, solve conflict, and create more open lines of communication.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Having an open, communicative, connected relationship with your teen is awesome…but pretty difficult to achieve. Teens don’t exactly make it easy to get close to them–when we try to have heart-to-hearts, they usually just roll their eyes. Plus, it’s hard to spend quality time together when they disappear to their rooms for hours at a time! Being vulnerable with teens can be an incredible way to bond with them and prep them with life advice for the world ahead, if we could only get them to listen.

To make things more complicated, having these conversations is usually a two-part process. Even when we’ve got kids to open up, it’s another challenge altogether to know what to say! When teens tell us about what’s going on with them, we don’t want to shut them down or make them feel worse. We want to give them advice that will help them become their best selves. Although this might feel like an impossible task, we’re giving you some tips this week to help you get there.

Our guest today is Mark Goulston, renowned psychologist and author of many books, including the popular Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior. Mark’s experiences working with patients and talking to parents all over the world has left him with some powerful notions about making an impact on teens. 

In our interview, we’re covering the importance of opening up to teens, how you can create a safe space for teens to be vulnerable, and how we can move forward to a promising future with kids instead of dwelling on our past mistakes.

How Conversations Can Lead to Connections

Our words are often a lot more powerful to teens than we might think. During our discussion, Mark shares a touching story about how a talk in his young adult years changed his life forever. When he was on the brink of dropping out of med school, the dean of students told him he had a streak of goodness in him, and fought for him to stay in the program. At the time, Mark’s mental health was poor. When the dean said Mark had a future ahead of him, Mark finally felt like he had the power to go on. For some teens, this kind of encouragement can be essential.

For others, it can be critical to know it’s ok to make mistakes. In the episode, Mark explains how some teens constantly compare themselves to their “perfect” seeming parents, and feel like they can never measure up. By letting your walls down and allowing yourself to be vulnerable about your own mistakes, you can help teens see that they don’t always have to be flawless. Mark and I talk a lot in the interview about the damage of pushing kids to be high achievers and how we can move towards a healthier set of expectations.

When you’re able to connect with teens on a deeper level, they develop what Mark calls basic trust. This is an essential part of growing from a teen to a functional, content adult. Without this trust, they often feel anxious stepping into the world and don’t have a sense of safety, he says. When you and your kid are truly able to bond on a deeper level, you can reach what Mark describes as “radical attunement,” which goes deeper than just surface conversation and allows the two of you to be connected by instinct. Mark and I dive further into his concept in our talk.

So you know how important these talks can…but how can we go about having them? 

Asking Teens the Right Questions

When it comes to working out conflicts with teens, Mark recommends looking towards the future instead of the past. Instead of bringing up old points of tension from previous mistakes, he explained that it can be more productive to ask teens how they want things to be different in the future. Is there something you’ve been doing that’s harmful? What can you start doing to help teens develop confidence and healthy habits? 

Discussing the future can also be a pre-emptive way to figure out incoming issues before they become arguments. Mark recommends asking kids what you should do the next time you find yourself concerned by their behavior. Kids might say to text them, or write them a letter, or just talk to them directly–but getting their game plan will help next time there’s a tussle between the two of you. Instead of acting without a plan, you’ll have their input for how to handle their bad grade or disrespectful attitude.

When teens are angry or acting out, they often don’t respond well to punitive measures. What they really need, Mark says, is to be asked how they are feeling–and why they are feeling it. Mark suggests waiting until an upset teen has calmed down before asking them what they feel is missing in their life or why they’re feeling bad about themselves. Or if focusing too much on achievement has left them feeling empty. Mark calls this a time out, except it requires both teens and parents to take a minute and acknowledge that continuing to fight will only make the issue worse.

But what can you do when teens are resistant to letting their walls down, or snap at you for even trying to start a discussion? Mark and I talk about how you can get these conversations going in our interview.

Creating a Space for Conversation

If you want to initiate a talk but don’t know if a kid will respond well, Mark advises skipping the awkwardness of trying to sit them down for a serious discussion. Instead, he suggests having this talk while doing something else, like driving to the store or washing dishes. This makes things a little more comfortable and less confrontational, Mark explains. 

When teens are prompted to bring up serious topics, it can often trigger trauma from previous wounds. Maybe you’re concerned about the way they’ve been dressing…but discussing this might remind them of the body insecurity so many teens suffer from. Some teens become angry or hostile when prompted to open up, but if you can meet them where they are and show that you understand how they’re feeling deep down, it can help the conversation become more productive and less hot-headed, says Mark. In our interview, we discuss how problems can arise when teens begin relying too much on angry outbursts to get your attention.

Mark believes very strongly in the power of mentorship. If you can’t have these conversations with kids, there may be a non-parental figure who your kid responds to a little bit easier. Mark explains that when kids turn to a mentor instead of their parents, it doesn’t mean parents have failed. Mentors are powerful because kids often find them independently; this person is someone they’ve sought out on their own. This figure also keeps kids from being too dependent on parents, and helps them learn to make meaningful connections out in the world.

In the Episode..

Mark and I have a light hearted but rich conversation in this week’s episode, covering a wide range of parenting topics. On top of the topics discussed above, we talk about:

  • What kids really mean when they say “I’m fine”
  • Why you shouldn’t offer solutions to upset teens
  • What happens when kids are too coddled or criticized
  • How parents can become mentors themselves

If you enjoyed Mark’s advice, you can find more of his work on his website, markgoulston.com or on Twitter at @markgoulston. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. If your teen is struggling or overwhelmed:

“Even if you don’t become a doctor, even if you don’t do anything the rest of your life, I’d be proud to know you because you have a streak of goodness in you that we don’t grade in…school. We should, but we don’t and you don’t know how much the world needs that goodness.”

-Mark Goulston

2. Rather than argue about a party, try: (1 of 2)

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3. Rather than argue about a party, try: (2 of 2)

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4. Check in to make sure your teen is truly okay:

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5. Give your teen a subtle confidence boost:

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6. Remind your teen of your goal as the parent:

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7. Check in on the best way to help your teen: (1 of 3)

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8. Check in on the best way to help your teen: (2 of 3)

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9. Check in on the best way to help your teen: (3 of 3)

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10. Help hold your teen to their standards:

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11. Pause a heated conversation with: (1 of 2)

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12. Pause a heated conversation with: (2 of 2)

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13. Separate poor behavior from identity: (1 of 2)

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14. Separate poor behavior from identity: (2 of 2)

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have some great stories in your books about different situations you’ve seen in your practice with families and helping to bring families together. There really are deep rifts happening between parents and teenagers. Can you talk a little bit about what you do and how you got started in all this?

Mark: There’s kind of a background story and the background story is I dropped out of medical school twice, probably for untreated depression. The first time I dropped out, took a year off and I worked at blue collar jobs and my mind came back to me. Then I came back and I think my depression came back, so I asked for a second leave of absence, but I met with the head of the school who really cared more about finances. I can understand his point of view. His point of view is this kid is dropping out for the second time. He’s not going to make it. We lose money every time someone takes a leave of absence because we lose matching funds, but I get a call from the dean of students who cares about students and he said, “You need to come in here because I got a letter from the main dean.”

Mark: I went in and the letter from the main Dean said, “I met with Mr. Goulston. We talked about different careers and I’m advising the promotions committee that he be asked to withdraw,” because I wasn’t failing anything. I wasn’t doing great, but I wasn’t failing. I asked the dean of students, “What does this mean?” He said, “You’ve been kicked out.” The dean of students looked at me and he said, “You didn’t mess up because you’re passing everything, but you are messed up, but if you become unmessed up, I think this school would be glad they gave you another chance.”

Mark: Then he said, “And even if you don’t get unmessed up, even if you don’t become a doctor, even if you don’t do anything the rest of your life, I’d be proud to know you because you have a streak of goodness in you that we don’t grade in medical school. We should, but we don’t and you don’t know how much the world needs that goodness, and you’re not going to know it till you’re 35, but you got to make it till you’re 35.” At that point, I just started crying. I mean, he was pummeling me with compassion and kindness, and I didn’t know what to do with it. “And you’re going to let me help you.” If he had said, “If I can help you, give me a call,” there’s a good chance I would’ve gone back to my apartment. I wouldn’t have called him and there’s a possibility I wouldn’t be here today.

Mark: What happened is the combination of seeing value in me that I couldn’t see, seeing a future for me that I couldn’t see, seeing value in me that I couldn’t see and then his going to bat for me against the medical school saying, “We’re going to give him a second chance,” it flipped a switch in. What happened my second year off, instead of a blue collar job, I went to a place called the Menninger Foundation, which is a big psychiatric foundation, one of the biggest in those years. It was in Topeka, Kansas. I worked in one of their programs there at Topeka State Hospital. It was in the middle of winter. I would spend a lot of my days just walking on the grounds with snow, with schizophrenic farm boys. The psychiatrist there said, “You have a knack.” Up until that time, I didn’t think I had a knack for anything. Knowing that and internalizing that I had a knack, it made me think maybe I have a future.

Mark: I finished that year, came back, finished medical school, then went to psychiatry training at UCLA. Well, one of the things that we shared before this interview is there’s a talk that I’ve been giving for 20 or 30 years to middle school parents. There was one presentation about keeping your teenager safe and the co-presenter was a FBI officer. He shared about all the things with parents that they should look out for to keep their child safe, but I did something a little bit different.

Mark: The title of my talk was It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To. What I did is I did a role play with the parents and I played a teenager who was overprotected. I said, “I’m going to go to that party this weekend and you’re not calling the other parents, and yes, there’ll probably be drugs. There’ll probably be gangs. There’ll be guns, but you’ve ruined my fucking life.” The role play with the parents was it’s up to you to talk me out of this. I’m this headstrong kid of yours and you’re a little bit freaked out. They tried to talk me out of it, but I’ve done this role play in many different settings, including training FBI. I always end with one of these gotchas.

Mark: I’m frustrating the parents and I said, “Let me see if I understand you. You want what’s best for me. Right?” They said, “Yes.” “And you’re only thinking about what will give me a good life. Is that right?” They said, “Yeah.” I said, “So if I do exactly what you tell me to do and I follow everything you tell me to do, my reward is that I get to grow up and be as happy and well-adjusted as all of you are?” These are not well adjust parents. They’re divorced. They’re angry. They’re whatever, but it was a real gotcha. Then what I do is I say, “This is what you could have told me or asked me that would’ve caused me to cooperate with you.

Mark: Briefly, instead of getting into an argument, what I’d want you to say is, “It’s really important to you that you go to this party, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “I mean, really important because you haven’t been going to any parties like this.” “Yes.” “How did it become so important to you to go to this party and what are we missing as your parents that we haven’t talked about? Because you’re a good kid, but clearly you’re unhappy about something. What is it that we do as your parents that have frustrated you, angered you, maybe messed with you even though you have a 4.3 GPA that we love?”


What you really want them to do is to talk about what’s missing in their life, how they feel odd, how they have acne, how they feel that their life is terrible and this whole idea that they’re going to be high achievers. They don’t feel it’s going to make them happy because they’re just focusing on achievement has not made them happy. In fact, they’re miserable. What you really want to do, you want to get them to get that off their chest.

Mark: A friend of mine’s 14-year-old son died by suicide three years ago and we’ve been doing presentations to an organization called YPO, Young President’s Organization and a younger version called EO, Entrepreneur organization. He tells the story of what he missed as an entrepreneur because he thinks it was his fault, which is heart-wrenching. Then I talk about things you can do to get through to your teenager. Some of the things that Jason Reed talked about that are interesting, he said, “When you ask your child how they’re doing, and they say, I’m great, they’re usually good. But when they say I’m fine, they’re not. What they’re really saying is get off my back, leave me alone.” One of the things that he brought up that he’s trying to teach parents, he’s a serial entrepreneur. He solves problems. He succeeds. He fails. He succeeds, but I think he’s an iron man, a black belt. He’s an entrepreneur. He builds business.

Mark: One of the things he said is, “I made it impossible for my kid because my kid compared himself to me and we didn’t talk about feelings. My kid, compared to me, thought he was a loser and I never talked about being vulnerable. I never tell my family if I’m afraid that I’m going to lose a business. I’m an entrepreneur.” He said, “I never showed vulnerability, so when he was feeling it, he could go to his mom, but he’s a young man and his mom would be comforting to him, but he was a teenager. He wanted to grow up to be strong like his dad.” What Jason said is, “What I didn’t realize is when your child is stuck in deep anxiety or depression, you can try and give them some solutions, but if they don’t work, you have to find a way to go where they’re at because inside, what they’re saying is I can’t do it like you, mom. I can’t do it like you, dad. You have to come and find me.”

Mark: What happens is as we go through life and we feel pain, we look to our parents, especially our mom when we’re young and how they respond to us, we internalize that. There’s a term that one of my friends has mentioned to me called radical attunement. Radical attunement means really getting where the other person’s coming from so they really feel connected with and when they feel connected with, they feel safe. It’s very rare, especially for millennial parents to have radical attunement because it requires letting go of everything they’re doing, being patient, curious and really just seeking to know where your child’s coming from, as opposed to just checking a box because you have to go back because you have a deadline at your company by 5:00 PM that day. What happens is you internalize what you pick up from your parents and that can give you a sense of wellbeing or not so wellbeing.

Mark: There is a social psychologist named Eric Erickson. He talked about the psychosocial levels of development. The very first step he talks about, which people remember is basic trust or basic mistrust. When your baby, your infant, your child has a sense of basic trust, they go out in the world and you know, they’re a little nervous, but they’re not that worried because they have basic trust. If at a very young age, you were out of tune with them where the pain was just awful, where you thought they were hungry and what they were crying about is they had poop in their diaper or vice versa.

Mark: If they develop basic mistrust, then when they go out in the world they’re anxious because at any given moment, the world’s going to do something and it’s going to trigger how they felt scared, powerless, maybe even terrified. You know some of those screams in the middle of the night when you’re saying we got to teach them to sleep through the night. We’re not going in. We’re keeping them in the crib and if you’re parents who’ve lived through that, you know it’s pretty tough, but they’re safe and most kids adjust to that. There’s a chart that shows that all through life when we run into obstacles or we have a triumph, we look back at our parents, our managers, our bosses and how they respond to us, we internalize.

Mark: There’s a second chart, which you’ll be able to see in which I outline that when you look back, there’s four different ways our parents, our managers, our bosses can respond to us. They can coddle us and spoil us, do everything for us, which keeps us from ever learning independence. They can be critical of us, and shame us and tell us, “Stop crying already or man up.” When that happens, our hurt and fear turns into anger. When we become teenagers, we tend to act out in angry ways. The third way is if they just neglect us because they’re preoccupied, they’re out of work, they’re depressed. They don’t know what to do. Then when we run into obstacles in life, we’re all alone. What we learn to do is we learn to not take chances and life is about taking chances, making mistakes, learning you can handle the mistakes and moving on.

Mark: If you internalize either being coddled, being overly criticized or being neglected, you can see that you’re not really set up to really meet the challenges of the world. If you’ve been bailed out and coddled, when you get to meet those challenges of the world as a young adult, what’s going to happen is you’re going to expect other people to bail you out. When they’re not there to bail you out, you’re going to be kind of lost, or if you’ve been overly criticized and something bad happens, you’re going to get angry. Just like someone blamed you for crying because you were in pain, you’re going to blame whatever upsets you and you’re going to make them the enemy. Or if you were neglected and you run into something, what you’re going to do is you’re going to pull away and withdraw, and you’re going to go hide out in your apartment and people don’t know what happened to you.

Mark: Now, the fourth way is something that we can all learn. I learned it when I dropped out of medical school and the dean of students helped me out. The fourth way is having a loving teacher, mentor, coach. It’s not someone who coddles you, but it’s someone who has some skills of teaching you things, mentoring you and coaching you. People listening in may not know the name, John Wooden, but John Wooden was the winningest collegiate basketball coach at UCLA. He wrote a book and he talked about how some of his mentors were his late wife who died, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa. It doesn’t even have to be anyone you know, it can be someone who inspired you. In the book, there’s also some NBA players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton. You can tell that when they’re describing… They called him coach that that was amongst the highlights in their entire career. It wasn’t because he just taught them basketball, but he was that loving teacher, mentor, coach.

Mark: You’re probably familiar with Tiger Woods. In 1997, Tiger Woods was playing in his first Professional Master’s Tournament and he shot 40 on the front nine the first day and if you don’t know about golf, 40 is not a very good score as a pro. It’s either three or four over par, and so he not only looked back, he went to his dad, Earl Woods, basically to say, “I don’t know what’s happening. The wheels are coming off,” but because Earl had taught him, mentored him, coached him, they were really very, very close. Then they ran into difficulties, but by the end of Earl’s life, Tiger really returned to loving and honoring his dad. At that early age, he went back to Earl and Earl basically absorbed his pain. He didn’t belittle it. He just said to him, “You’ve been here hundreds of times before, just do what you need to do.” Tiger Woods went out and shot 18 under par, which had never been equaled until this last year, but I think the record still holds because the person who shot 20 under par, I don’t think he shot 40 in the front nine. Yeah.

Mark: What do I hope you’re getting from this? That underneath the acting out of our teenagers, there’s usually some wound, some hurt, some fear that we don’t talk to them about and they don’t talk to us about. One of the reasons they don’t talk to us about it is parents is because they don’t have a lot of confidence that we’ll be able to talk with them in a good way. Why? Because nobody talked to us. It’s been passed on by generations and when underneath the anger is some sort of trauma that caused fear, hurt. If you look at it this way, if you’re a teenager and something happened that’s upsetting and traumatic and let’s say it triggers something from way back when where you felt hurt, afraid, maybe panicky.

Mark: If you’re that teenager and you have a choice to feel afraid and panicky, or angry and hostile and there’s nothing in between, you’re going to be angry and hostile, but here’s the interesting thing. If you’re feeling hurt, and afraid and close to panic and you’re all alone in it, and you don’t know how to have a conversation with your parents, you don’t have much confidence that that will help. What you really need is a real connection with them. You want their undivided attention, but when you act out in a way that’s angry, hostile, belligerent, you get their undivided attention. Unfortunately, your undivided attention is usually punitive.


About Mark Goulston

Mark Goulston is the author or co-author of nine books, including Get out of Your Own Way, which has sold over 200,00 copies. His book, Just Listen, has been translated into twenty eight languages and is the top book on listening in the world. Mark was formerly UCLA professor of psychiatry for over 25 years, as well as an FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the host of the highly rated podcast, My Wakeup Call and the co-host of Out of Our Minds and In Your Space on Twitter Spaces. He is a Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches member and works with entrepreneurs, CEOs, Chairs, and Managing Directors to help them become their best selves.  He is also an international keynote speaker on self-improvement.

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