Book review: I’d Listen to My Parents If They’d Just Shut Up: What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens

Posted on January 8, 2013 
Filed Under Anita, Book Review, The Star

By Anita Matthews

Published in Parenthots, The Star on January 7, 2013 as Learn to communicate with your teen

What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens
By Anthony E. Wolf, PhD
Publisher: Harper

The book’s title offered no comfort. The words “parent” and “shut up” were more than a reality check. I barely “shut up” when talking to my kids. More often than not, I overstate and overcompensate long after the kids have tuned out.

The title of Wolf’s book embossed in bright yellow on a red cover sent pangs of guilt through me. The sunshiny coloured text belied the blaring alarm bells that scream through my head with every interaction I have with my teens.

Parenting teens

Thankfully, Wolf’s book did come to the rescue. Through it, he lays the foundation of why teens behave the way they do. He provides frustrated parents solace and solutions to the messy parent-child communication style as he astutely captures nuanced conversations. Parents can begin to see a different perspective, or as in my case, come across many light bulb moments.

For one, I often forget that adolescence is a rite of passage. As the book progresses, it becomes very clear that parents can and should manage their conversations with teenagers. Parents should also be guided by a mantra not to take their teens’ whiny, crabby, snotty or angry behaviour personally.

Wolf’s argument is simple: The teen years are a passing phase and often complicated by the presence of hormones affecting the emotional, physical and mental being. During these arid and alien years that parents undergo with their trying teens, Wolf emphasises that teens’ talking back and avoidance of parental contact is commonplace. The “allergy to parents” is an itch parents should not scratch!

No doubt, at the back of our fair-minded parenting heads, we are wondering what happened to our adorable toddlers who freely gave and received hugs; the very same tots who idolised the ground we walked on. And, we fear that the sudden change from sweetness to sullenness could possibly turn them into awful adults.

What parents may consider helpful is often interpreted as a judgment call by the teen. Teenagers are struggling to embrace the notion of independence and find it tough to be independent of their parents as much as parents face difficulty letting go of their children.

Wolf tempers the learning process of understanding teens with plenty of examples on how conversations can turn out and underlines the types of conversations with desirable and undesirable outcomes. The scenarios of conversations peppering Wolf’s entire book provide insights on how parents can learn to manage their teens better.

For obvious reasons, perhaps to more than a few parents, conversations that produce undesirable outcomes are the norm. Wolf clarifies that it is largely due to awkward communication methods used by parents. More often than not, parents are either taking what teens say beyond face value or not really paying attention to the conversation.

When talking to teens, parents have a choice to take the conversation to a sweet or surly spot. Sometimes in the effort to be a friend or give friendly advice, parents take the conversation south. Paying attention to what our teens are saying is very, very important.

The scenarios drawn up by Wolf are often hilarious and priceless as they make any parent puzzle over how they could have gone wrong when engaging their teens. But that happens due to many reasons. Any sane parent would instantly identify the typical scenario. The cure, says Wolf, is to think before we open our mouths, and to know when to stop talking after we have opened our mouths.

Parents need a tongue restrainer to prevent them from lengthening an inane conversation to ensure the essence of real communication is preserved between them and the child. Wolf advocates “competing melodies” in engaging teens. By that, Wolf urges parents to make sure each conversation takes an upbeat note versus one that is preachy or helpful or defensive. This approach would draw a smile even from the most sullen child.

Wolf also encourages parents to accept and acknowledge their own flaws (and to apologise sincerely when they are in the wrong) because the hero worship during the toddler years has come to a halt. The truth is teens find it hard to accept that their parents are flawed!

However, Wolf does make it very clear that parents cannot expect a harmonious relationship with their teens all the time. There will be good moments and lousy days. But teens need to know that their parents are in charge. With power comes great responsibility.

Parents need to exercise that responsibility even if it means practising double standards when making decisions. On top of that, as parents, we must remember to draw a line between being a friend and being a parent. Parents are, first and foremost, parents. And, our child needs our unconditional love and support especially during the alien teen years.

In sharing the techniques, Wolf reiterates that parents must set boundaries. Children – teens and tots – expect that. Getting teens to do chores is possibly among the harder habits to inculcate but Wolf insists that parents persist on this score.

In addition to boundaries, Wolf also believes that parents must persist to continue instilling good manners during the adolescent years.

Wolf’s book offers a lot and at times, is a tad overwhelming. And that is partly due to parents having to adjust from parenting a tot to a teen. Now we just need to learn the alternative way to say something so that the outcome of the conversation would result in a happy teen and a happier parent!


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