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/ Sep 04, 2018

Why Not to Make Assumptions About Your Teens

Parents

What Happens When We Make Assumptions

We all make assumptions sometimes. It’s human nature. And, you’ve probably heard the cliché about assumptions, right? But, assumptions come from somewhere, and our brains often jump to them for good reason. Assumptions are our intuition trying to help us to make sense of situations.

Let’s say you come home from work to find your son sitting in the dark in his room staring at the wall with his arms crossed. You say, “Bad day, huh?” You get no response. What is going on here? You ask again and he rolls his eyes, turns away, grunts incoherently, and says nothing else.

Don’t Misread the Situation

You conclude he had a bad day. It’s possible that you may have interpreted his body language correctly, and he might have had a bad day. But the reality is we are often wrong in these situations and therefore can misread our teen’s mood.

He might be thinking about a homework problem and doesn’t want to lose his train of thought. He might be replaying a difficult day at school and is feeling intensely fragile, doing everything he can to hold it together. Or, he might be right in the middle of writing a new song for his band, and this is how he expresses his creative mood.

If you jump to conclusions, your assumptions may leave you feeling hurt, angry and defensive, when really what your son needs from you is support, time, and space to work things out on his own.

A Personal Experience

A few years ago, I came home from work early to find my 10-year-old-daughter lying in bed with the covers over her head. I knocked on the door and asked permission before entering. (Knocking and getting permission is a rule in our house designed to show the respect that everyone gets no matter their age.)

It’s not unusual for me to find her safely under her covers. Normally, I pull the covers off her and ask how her day was. We then have a brief chat before I go make dinner. This day, I pulled the covers back to find her crying and obviously upset. I sat down worried and asked several ways what was wrong. She told me ‘nothing’ repeatedly.

Finally, exasperated, she sat up looked me in the eye and admitted that something had happened. She said it was something between her and several girls at school. She said through tears that she knew it would seem like nothing to me and that in a few weeks it would probably seem like nothing to her too, but that right now she just wanted to cry, think it over and make peace with the fact that her relationship with her friends was changing.

A Surprised Reaction

I was stunned. I was shocked that she was actually able to articulate so many aspects of the situation so well. I was immensely proud of her. And felt guilty that I had interrupted what was clearly a very internal, private process.

I told her how proud I was of her, that I trusted her judgment, and that I assumed she didn’t want any advice from me. She did not. I told her she knew where to find me later that day or any other if she wanted to unload. I reminded her I would do my best to keep my opinions to myself. She laughed in a way I knew meant that she was aware of how hard that would be for me.

Present Reality

It was months before I found out what had truly happened that day. It did seem trivial to me, but then middle school is many years in my past. These days I worry about my job security, if I hired the right staff, and whether a big report got out on time. The middle school years are my daughter’s present reality. Her problems are just as all-consuming, emotionally draining, and stressful as mine. And like me, sometimes she wants someone else’s advice, and sometimes she doesn’t.

Discussion Tip
If you’re going to give your tweens or teens advice, be sure they interpret your words as they were intended. Check back with them to clarify they understood what you advised.

Trust Our Teens and Let Them Have Their Own Experiences

As parents, checking our assumptions means giving young people a chance to experience their own lives literally, and emotionally. It means giving them space to figure stuff out. It means giving them the opportunity to seek guidance on their own terms. Letting them be human and manage some situations with grace and others without it. But all the while, reinforcing that we will always be there for them with unconditional love. It means we should respect our intuitions, but trust them to be our guide to the inner aspects of their lives.

Be Clear About What You Think is Happening

When we are not clear about what may be going on with our tweens and teens, make a statement about what is happening. This will allow them to correct us. State the emotions you think your child is feeling. You can say something like, “It seems you might be feeling upset. Am I right or totally off base?” Or, you can make an open-ended statement like, “I sense something’s going on. Do you want to talk about it?”

You can also take a guess about what your child might want or need. You can say, “I can see that you have some things on your mind. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m here to listen, now or later.”

When It’s Not About You

Remember that often times the situation is not about you, so keep your own emotions in check. Think about some of your other close relationships. If your spouse or good friend has a bad day and is moody, we (usually!) recognize that they are not mad at us and it does not help to get upset with them. Instead, we may acknowledge that something is going on, tell them we’ll give them space to deal with what’s bothering them and we’ll be available to talk about it if they want.

Be willing to talk, listen or give advice. These are all very different things. Make sure you clarify with your child what role they would like for you to play.

Determine Your Role

Be willing to talk, listen or give advice. These are all very different things. Make sure you clarify with your child what role they would like for you to play. As young people go through adolescence, they want to take more responsibility for making their own decisions, not be told what to do or critiqued when things don’t go well.

When you give your young person information or advice, be aware that there is also the chance that they might misinterpret what we say! Don’t assume they heard what you said the way that you meant it. Check in with them and say, “Tell me what you’ve taken away from what I have just said.”

Teach Good Decision-Making Skills — While Learning Something Yourself

One of my favorite things to say after I’ve given my daughters advice is, “Was any of that helpful?” I often get a “No,” which is a golden opportunity for me to learn more about their lives, and the situations they may be facing that might make my advice more or less helpful. As we talk through the (many) reasons why my suggestions are not helpful, my daughters are almost always able to think of other strategies and solutions that will work better. It is my way of teaching them good decision-making skills. To be honest, I am less interested in whether they like my advice, and more interested in being part of the problem-solving process. Plus, it is really fun to find out later which ideas worked and which did not.

Keep Opinions to Yourself (Unless Asked)

If they ask you to listen, it’s your time to keep your opinions to yourself. Use encouraging words to help them talk. Say things like “Really?” Or, “What happened next?” If you really need to offer an opinion, ask permission before doing so. And, if they tell you they don’t want your opinion, respect that.

Assumptions can backfire and lead to miscommunications. This goes for assumptions we make about our teens and it can just as easily go the other way around if our children make assumptions about the motivation behind our parenting decisions or what we might be feeling or thinking. To foster a home where positive communication occurs share: Tips for Teens: Check Your Assumptions Before Having Important Conversations with your adolescents.

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Aletha Akers

Aletha Akers, MD, is a faculty member at the CPTC and an adolescent gynecologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is one of the experts featured in our video series and authors pieces for us on healthy sexuality, communication, and more. Dr. Aker’s brings years of expertise in community-based research and translating research into educational materials.

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