Ep 64: A Way Through the Toughest Conversations

Episode Summary

Dr. Amy Alamar, author of The Parenting Project and Parenting for the Genius, takes insight from the educational sphere and applies it to practical parenting techniques to get through to your teen. Whether you have a teen that shuts down, or one that over-shares, Dr. Alamar has suggestions for exactly what to say when the tough conversations get going!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Do you notice your teen shutting down and pushing you out? As teens strive to become individuals, they start to communicate less and less with parents. This is a common ‘side effect’ of growing up, but it isn’t all bad. Making decisions independently is a critical skill all teenagers need to learn. Although, if parents struggle to keep a close relationship with their teens, there can be more conflict and difficulty when it comes to teaching life lessons.

Amy Alamar, author of The Parenting Project: Build Extraordinary Relationships With Your Kids Through Daily Conversation, believes the best way to know your child is through conversation. As an experienced teacher and researcher, Amy uses academic research and psychological concepts to break down the most effective ways to communicate with teens. Her methods involve daily techniques you can use to build extraordinary relationships through conversation. Even when it comes to the most trying topics!

In this episode of the podcast, we cover everything from managing our reactions to word-for-word scripts for the toughest situations. Here are some of the major takeaways.

Recognize Your Reactions

Certain types of conversation make us act and react differently, we can’t help it. And sometimes our apparent shock or frustration can cause a teen to back out of the dialogue. As parents, if we’re discussing something that makes us afraid, like our teen driving for the first time, our emotions are heightened. We have a totally different energy than if we were talking to our teens about intimacy, or being a self-advocate.

Amy advises that we walk our teens through our own emotions so they aren’t put off by a genuine reaction. Simply explaining, “I’m not judging you, I’m just surprised,” can make a world of difference. It might take a minute to calm down, but it’s important to let your teen know that you want to have a fair conversation without reactions speaking louder than reason. We also discuss the value of finding the right tone and setting, even when we’re upset and can’t keep up a solid ‘poker face.’

Let Your Child Speak

Amy shares how staying quiet and letting your child speak can be the key to having meaningful conversation. For example, asking open ended questions like, “how did you feel about that?” can inspire a teen to be more open. Amy also suggests we point out situations in TV shows and movies to facilitate dialogue about touchy topics like drug use or peer pressure. It feels non-confrontational and lets your teen speak their mind freely, as it’s about a fictional scenario.

Plus, we outline the difference between whole-family and one-on-one conversations, as well as how to let our children bring up their thoughts about the future, so we don’t make assumptions about their path. Above all else, Amy highlights how to be on your teen’s team, always.

Navigate Risks and Limits

“We’re not their friends, we’re they’re parents.” This impactful statement from Amy regards setting expectations and holding our teens to them. We have to be bold about setting limits, but at the same time, we must recognize that it’s the purpose of a teenager to push limits, take risks, and try new things. So, our job is less about being strict, and more about talking our teens through their decision making and coming up with appropriate natural consequences when they make certain choices.

In this episode, Amy coaches parents how to teach their teens about making decisions, learning from mistakes, identifying parents’ concerns, and forming plans to address those concerns.

Master Difficult Conversations

There are so many tricky conversations that Amy has methods for mastering. If your child has a friend that you don’t like, Amy knows just how to handle it. She mentions that one of the worst things you can do is say, “You can’t be friends with that person,” or judge that person, because the minute you judge them, your child will start to shut down. Instead, she recommends ways to influence our teen’s decision making.

She has tips for talking about the most dreaded topic of all too: teenage sex. Some of her talking points include the importance of intimacy, being present, and having consent for an enjoyable experience. Rather than encourage or forbid sex, her approach focuses on how to have the best relationship, and what it takes to achieve that.

We even go into detail about what to say when someone breaks your child’s trust, elaborating on empathy and apologies. This episode is packed with useful suggestions to conquer all sorts of challenging discussions you’ll have with your teens!

Parenting Scripts

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

1. To open a conversation about your teen going to a party:

“I’m a little worried you might drink, I’m a little worried you might hop off into the wrong car with somebody who’s drinking, I’m a little worried about who you’ll go to if you have a problem–can we talk about what you might do or what might happen?”

-Amy Alamar

2.  When your teen is getting ready to head out to a party you’re not so sure about:

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3.  Get a conversation going about decision making after a bad choice by your teen:

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4.  If a family conversation starts to get combative between siblings:

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5.  When you’re watching TV or a movie with your teen and something questionable happens:

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6.  When your TV/movie discussion seems to be ramping up in awkwardness:

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7.  When your teen is heading out with a new friend you don’t know:

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8.  Your teen is resistant to letting you meet their new friend(s):

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9.  A disagreement has come to an impasse–try to clear it with:

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10. Draw out a teen that’s shutting down mid conversation:

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12. Give your teen an ‘out’ in the tough and/or awkward parenting conversations:

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13. If your teen walks off from a conversation and slams the door, restart the conversation later with:

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14. When your teen puts themselves down:

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15. Let the teen bring up college:

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16. Your teen expresses a desire to not go to college, dig deeper to understand where it’s coming from:

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17. If your teen is hesitant about picking a college to attend:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I always think that a really interesting place to start is just what propelled you to write this book. And this book really is specific about these five different types of conversations that parents have with kids. And so it got me wondering like how you noticed these or came up with these or realized that these were the five important conversations, and then what inspired you to write it down in this book.

Amy: Yeah. Well, my first book really focused on using reflective practice, which is an educational concept and so applying educational concepts that work really well in the classroom with instruction and also within professional development for teachers, and how do we apply that to parent education, right? And when I was working with people doing these professional developments and writing the book and talking with parents, I was noticing that this is really helpful. We do a lot of research in education. We do a lot of research in what works. And education, we are raising children. And so why not take some of these concepts into parenting practices. And it’s not really done that much. So reaching out a little more broadly and working with my co-author, we talked about psychology concepts and education concepts. And how do you talk with kids?

Amy: Because the first book really focuses on raising kids and kids with character and helping kids develop responsibility and independence. But the way to get at that is through conversation. The best way to get to know your child is through conversation. And we see this lack of development of interpersonal skills in adults and children alike right now with technology. And so what are ways that we can embrace technology to have these conversations and what are ways that when we are off of technology that we can cultivate these relationships as well? And the types of conversations evolved through conversation about using different strategies. So looking at those concepts in education and psychology about what works, how to do a general strategy, we have sort of… Here’s a checklist of things you can think about when you’re talking.

Amy: And then what are the topics that are coming up most? And in talking with the parents and students that we were working with, we noticed these general topics. And then we sorted them into types of conversation. And it seems like,, when a parent is engaging in a conversation of a certain type and I’ll give you an example, they act and react differently. So for example, if you’re afraid, if you are really nervous and you’re having a dangerous conversation, like you’re really afraid for your child’s life. You’re talking about them driving for the first time maybe without you in the car or maybe driving a friend in the car for the first time, this is something you’re afraid. Like you’re heightened and your emotions are different from when you’re having a conversation about intimacy or romance or when you’re having a conversation about how to be a self-advocate. And so that’s how we sorted them.

Andy: So one cool thing that you do throughout the book is you break out these little green boxes that tell you specific things, specific situations and what you could do or how you could handle them. And one that I really liked towards the beginning was on what to do when someone breaks your child’s trust. Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy as a parent, how to handle it when your child’s trust is broken by someone else?

Amy: Absolutely. And one of the hardest pieces of advice that I have to learn and relearn myself as a parent is we have to let them hurt. And this is one of the hardest. Because seeing our child in pain or discomfort is really discomforting for us and painful for us. And so the best advice is to let them hurt. Let them understand what that feels like and then talking to them about it. So what does trust look like to you and how do you define it? And so where are relationships that we can point to where we have some trust and what does that look like? And you really have your child’s first relationship with them. And if possible you should be having this conversation very early on with them so that they understand what an established trust looks like.

Amy: Then, as they get older they start to navigate these relationships of their own. And you want to nurture those but you can’t be a part of them anymore necessarily. And I’m talking about the teen years, really, but even upper elementary. And so when they say somebody hurt them, somebody breached their trust, you have to ask them, “Well, how did that feel? How did they know it happened? And how do you establish trust with that person again? Is it worth establishing trust with that person?” And that leads into a conversation about relationships. And I think, as I said, the hardest thing is to really let them feel it and understand what that is, because then when they breach somebody’s trust, they understand. They get what they’re doing. And trust is a really difficult subject. Trust is something, there’s the white lie and there’s the harsh lie, and there’s talking behind somebody’s back. And there’s so many ways that you can interpret how people are.

Amy: And so really that face to face interaction is the best way to confront it. And so one of the conversations you have with them is, “Is this a relationship worth salvaging? Like, do you just let it go? Or is this something where you really want to repair it?” And it may not be worth repairing. It may be, “Well, that didn’t work out for me. And I’m going to move on, lesson learned.” Or it may be, “Hey,” and this will be an instance with you and your child while you’re giving them lots of practice, right. When you catch them in a lie, you give them lots of practice on how to repair it. You have to earn that trust back. You have to demonstrate that you’re sorry, not just say you’re sorry.

Andy: So a lot of people talk about setting expectations and how kids need boundaries, teenagers need boundaries, but it’s hard to actually do it. And how do you convey your expectations and make sure that they understand exactly what they are so that everyone’s on the same page? And so I really like some of the tips that you provide. One thing you say is that you could ask questions in order to set expectations, like questions about what your teen thinks your expectations are.

Amy: Yeah. So setting expectations and then holding your teen to them. It’s tough. And nobody’s said parenting was for the meek. So we have to be really bold about this. And this is where we remember we are not their friends. We can have a friendly relationship with our children. We hope to have a long lasting relationship with our children, but we’re not their friends, we’re their parents. And so they look to us to learn. And so we do set some limits and that starts at a very young age. You set limits, they push the limits, that’s their job. And my own son even said to me once when we were discussing something he had done, he said, “But isn’t it my job to push limits?” And he taught me in it. And I said, “Yes. And it’s my job really to help you learn from it.”

Amy: So if you have that approach, if you have the approach of, “Yes, this is your job. Yes, you are pushing limits.” And one of the beautiful things about being a teenager is that your brain is developing and you’re not afraid to take risks in the way adults are. And so, while that’s scary to the parent, that’s wonderful for the child because they’re really trying new things, they’re trying learn different personalities. And so our job is to talk with them through that. So before they go off into the world, that means before they get into the car, before they go to the party, before they hand in a big assignment, whatever it is, right, we’re having conversations about our expectations. And the reason that questioning is so important in here is that your child is an emerging adult. Even from day one, they’re an emerging adult. And you really want to allow them that opportunity to demonstrate independence.

Amy: And so if I just say, “I expect you to get As and I expect you to drive safely. And I expect you to get into college,” if I just set these expectations, it just sets a child up for potential failure and also frustration, because this may not be a combined expectation. So where their safety or morals involved, we can absolutely lay down a law, so to speak, but really there’s a lot of nuance here. And so the conversation looks like, “You want to go to the party. Why do you think I’m a little bit nervous to send you off to a party where I don’t know if a parent’s going to be there?” And then asking those questions and allowing them to help you fill in the blanks?

Amy: “Well, you’re probably worried I’m going to drink.” “Yeah. I’m a little worried you might drink. I’m a little worried you might hop into the wrong car with somebody who was drinking. I’m a little bit worried about where you’ll go for help, if you recognize that you need it.” and so you’re having the conversation and you’re asking the questions and you’re also allowed to share your own concern. That gives your child the opportunity to chime in and say, “Okay, I hear your concerns, and here’s what I’m going to do about that.”

Andy: That’s right.

Amy: And you can set up a plan together. When they actually do something that’s gone. And I think your question was two-fold, like that’s the pre.

Andy: Yeah.

Amy: Now the pro. The child maybe done something wrong. Maybe they… I know in certain states you can’t drive a child in your car until you’re a certain age. So maybe your child drives somebody else and you catch them. And so the conversation is in, “Boy, you did something wrong, you broke the rule and now you lose the keys to the car.” The conversation is, “Wow, I’m really afraid.” And this is where that tone comes into play that we talked about before. This is where I have to recognize I’m now in a dangerous conversation. So I’m heightened. I’m afraid for my child’s safety. I’m afraid that they might have harmed somebody else. And so I have to recognize I’m afraid and, “I need to know from you what you were thinking.” And it doesn’t come off in a [inaudible 00:10:13] tone like, “What were you thinking?” It’s, “What were you thinking? What led you to this decision?” Because we need to talk about the process of decision making. And we need to talk about the next time you’re posed with a difficult situation, what you’re going to do.

Amy: And this allows them the opportunity to think and reflect. And it doesn’t force them into a corner where they feel like they have to lie and get out of something. So we’re not focused on the consequence. We’re focused on the decision making. We’re focused on learning from the mistake. And then, yeah, if there’s a consequence. Absolutely. And the conversation leads to that, “Well, what do you think is a natural consequence of this? What’s logical? What will help you learn your lesson?” And they’ll chime in. Now, if they’re not giving themselves a harsh enough punishment, fine. That’s okay, and that’s all right. But usually the child will come up with something. They understand, if you give them the respect of, “My expectation was that you were going to take the laws of the road seriously, and you didn’t do that. So what are we going to do next?” You’re giving them the power, because again, you’re raising an adult and you want them to have that decision making power.

Andy: Yeah. It feels empowering. And it teaches them also to hold themselves accountable, which is what you want, is not to just always be the person who’s holding them accountable for everything, but to teach them to do that to themselves. And to set expectations for themselves and live up to them, I guess.

Amy: Yeah. And I don’t like to think about us catching our kids in a mistake or a lie as much as I like to think about talking through it. I mean, naturally, you will catch them, but the point is, as you say, they’re developing their own and their ways they’ll see the world. And so they need to catch themselves. Even if they make a mistake, they need to know, “Oops, I did that.” They need to recognize it and take ownership of it. And this is how we do that.

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Andy: What do you do when you have a teenager who shuts down and just won’t really open up or won’t let you connect and has given you a little shrug one-word answers and stuff like that?

Amy: Well, when you have a child that… If this is a new behavior, you want to definitely note it. So if this is somebody, a child who’s always been introverted and kept to themselves, and it seems to just be magnified, just remember that as your child changes, brain development is so complex. And so their personality will change in different phases. And sometimes keeping to themselves or opening up is a piece of that change. And so, it on its own is nothing to be overly concerned about. It combined with other red flags you might notice would be something to be more alarmed about. So things like changes in sleep, changes in diet, changes in friend groups, when you notice these changes and Oh, a change in personality and how much they’re opening up, that’s something where you might start to talk with the teachers or administrators at the school, get some more anecdotal information, maybe raise it with a pediatrician and ask for some other opinions. And that’s really the only major concern with this.

Amy: Normally, a teenager will pull back from their parents and not share as much. This is very typical behavior. So you have to see where your relationship is going with it. If it feels comfortable for you and they’re just sharing less, then fine, that’s the new reality. If it feels uncomfortable, like they’re hiding something from you, then you name it and you offer them the opportunity. So you have to be okay with quiet. You have to say to them things like, “I want us to know about each other.” And you have to give them the opportunity to respond to you and have them choose it. “Is this a good time to talk? You’re not really sharing much with me now, can we find a better time to talk?” And in the book, there’s some general strategies on how to promote conversations. So those are just a few.

Amy: It’s like finding the right setting, finding the right tone, finding the right time for them. And just saying, “This is really important for me. I want to have these conversations. They don’t have to happen often. Your first person, you don’t have to force it, but we’re going to have them.” And I think a lot of it is being quiet ourselves, which is something I honestly struggle with, but just sitting in silence and being comfortable with that and waiting for them to speak more than we’re speaking over them.

Amy: And some strategies for that would be, don’t jump in. Like if your child is facing a problem, even if it’s a small problem, don’t always jump in with, “Well, you know what I would do, or you should write…” Like fill in the blank. Just tell them, “Oh, Hmm.” And if you feel compelled to speak, it should be an open-ended question. “Well, what did that make you feel like?” Or, “What do you think? How do you want to resolve it?” And leaving it to them. And if they can’t answer it in the moment, that’s okay. Allow them some time to process and go back to the conversation.

Andy: You talk about the difference between a one-on-one conversation and a whole family conversation. And of course, like some conversations are better for breaking off in the family and doing one-on-one. So how often should you do that and how do you know when to do that?

Amy: Yeah. So there’s a couple of different dynamics in families, and it depends of course, on your family structure. So if there are two parents or two guardians in the home, then you want to make sure that the conversations with one child don’t feel ever like you’re teaming up. It should be like, “We’re all in this together. It’s not parents against child.” So if it’s something that might become difficult, you want to make sure that you’re making every effort to know that you’re all in this together. So that would be one example of when you would want to have clarity on that would be, if you’re talking maybe about a grade and the child might feel defensive about the grade, your conversation should be more about the process and the effort and what went into it. And if it feels like both parents are disappointed in the grade, that can come off really strong to a child.

Amy: So either having that one-on-one or making sure somebody’s sitting by the child, touching the child, like really part of it and asking a lot of questions. So just being aware of where something might feel like you’re teaming up. Also to note are siblings. Sibling relationships are amazing and very dynamic. And so sometimes if there’s an issue of, maybe your child has misbehaved, sometimes that conversation can be great with a sibling there because everybody can weigh in and they have an advocate there. Or sometimes that can play against them because the sibling may be excited to see their sibling in trouble. And so you just need to really think about that. And it doesn’t mean we’re going to time it right every time, what it means is we notice what’s going on. So if we’re all at the table and a conversation gets a little confrontational and you notice that the sibling dynamic is not a positive one, it’s not helping the conversation move forward, you can say, “You know what, let’s table this. I’d love to talk about it more, but I’m not feeling comfortable.”

Amy: And if you name those emotions, it’ll teach your child how to do it and how to step back as well. And so don’t be afraid to do it and just call it what it is. “I’m feeling uncomfortable. I feel like this isn’t working. We’re going to come back to this at another time.” There’s an interesting example, actually. Talking about sex is an interesting one where you would think that one-on-one is always better and that’s not necessarily so. And so that’s really reading your kid’s personality because sometimes you have different perspectives that you want in that conversation, and then you’ll have different questions. So if you have two children of different ages, the questions will be really different. Sometimes that can be really refreshing and wonderful.

Amy: And sometimes you want to have it one-on-one because you’re maybe talking about a specific relationship and you want to be really clear with your child about that relationship. But if you’re speaking more generally, it might be nice to have both siblings in the room and they understand like, “This is a family conversation and this is something we can bring up if we need to.” Also, both parents may or may not be welcome in that conversation. So it’s ideal if the child is comfortable talking, if they have two parents or three or four parents, right, with all of their parents about this, but they may not be. And so just recognizing that would be another time where one-on-one may be something preferable for your kid and it might vary for your siblings. Like one child might prefer this in private and the other may not. So you just have to cater to them.

Andy: Yeah. I also can feel less like a grill session sometimes if it’s done as a group, or sometimes it feels like, “Oh, well, the reason that you’re bringing this up is because of this certain situation or whatever, and you don’t trust me.” But if you do it in more of a group setting, then it can alleviate that or something. So it’s just another tool to use.

Amy: Absolutely. And one really wonderful way to get kids to talk is using television or whatever you’re watching these days, whatever device. But if you’re watching a show or a movie together, it’s a great time to pause it and ask questions and talk to them. And it can be a little bit nerdy and you don’t want to do it too much. But if something really questionable is going on, you could pause it and be like, “I wonder why they made that decision. Are kids at your school doing this? Do you know about this? Can you talk to me about it?” And again, it’s not accusing like, “Well, your friends don’t do this.” It’s more like, “Is this happening? Is this something we should be talking about?” And it allows you to open up that conversation in a way where you’re talking about the characters who are pretend or maybe real, depending on the show, and you’re talking about their choices and it’s not judging your child. It’s not judging their friends. It’s saying like, “I don’t understand this behavior. I’ve never seen this before. I didn’t know this was real. Tell me what you’re seeing.”

Amy: And so that’s a safe way to open up a lot of conversations and also can be more pleasurable. And then you can be like, “All right, this is weird. Let’s turn it back on.” And it’s an easier one.

About Amy Alamar

Dr. Amy Alamar is a researcher, speaker, and author. Her first book Parenting for the Genius was released in 2014 and applied scientifically proven educational practices to parenting. Her second book The Parenting Project, continued to educate parents, this time emphasizing daily communication to influence kids and teens.

Dr. Alamar has served as the Schools Program Director for Challenge Success at Stanford University, was a guest of Michelle Obama at the White House for a conversation about kids’ health in 2016, and writes for Babble and the Psychology blog, Hey Sigmund.

A San Francisco resident, Amy is married with 3 kids. She stays busy with her writing, as a speaker, and learning from her kids daily.

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