A CONVERSATION WITH BRAD WILCOX
Is there a hedgehog in your house? Do you have someone at home who tends to be nocturnal? … who emerges occasionally and reluctantly from a darkened habitat? … and whose prickles make him sometimes unapproachable? In short, do you have a teenager?
If so, you may need help navigating past his defenses, coaxing him into the light, and tenderly approaching his (or her!) sensitive side.
In How to Hug a Hedgehog – 12 Keys for Connecting with Teens, co-author Brad Wilcox offers some great advice for making contact with that loveable-yet-mysterious creature in your home. We had a chat with Brad to get some tips first-hand on how to best approach the challenge of creating and nurturing a relationship with your resident teenager.
GRAPEVINE: Let’s begin at the beginning: how would you advise parents to start making connections with their kids when that effort sometimes feels one-sided … and prickly!?
BRAD: Well, firstly, my advice would be: don’t take everything at face value. Look beyond the prickly comments and the attitude.
BEHIND THE FRONT
Teenagers often put up ‘walls’ or ‘fronts’. Sometimes that front is distance – they’ll pull away from you – and sometimes that front is arrogance. Either way, you have to be able to step back and figure out the message that he’s really communicating.
I compare it to a baby crying. When a baby cries, we don’t always know what the baby needs. So we try something. Then we try something else. And the important thing is that we keep trying, because the cry lets us know that there’s a need that’s not being met.
GV: So, when kids get really arrogant or boastful or distant – when they start pushing you away – that’s when you have to try hearing those attitudes as a cry?
BRAD: Exactly! That cry is telling you there’s a need that’s not being met. Underneath that arrogant exterior is usually a lot of insecurity that the kid’s trying to make up for. And because he’s feeling insecure, overlooked, or underappreciated – or because he doubts his own ability – he tries to put on this front that says, “I’m cool! I’m great! You don’t have to tell me anything, because I already know!” That’s his way of masking those insecurities. So, instead of reacting, parents need to try asking themselves, “What’s the need that’s not being met here? What’s behind this cry?”
GV: Okay. But when you see those walls, how do you break them down? When your teen only responds with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or a grunt, how do you open up the lines of communication?
BRAD: Well, one thing that’s always worked for me is to ‘find the loose brick’. That wall might seem completely solid. But, if you feel around carefully, you’ll always find a loose brick or two. By that I mean the one thing the teen likes enough to actually talk to me about it. It’s the one interest, the one talent, the one ability that’s high on that kid’s list. Paying attention to that can make all the difference.
One mum told me, “My kid doesn’t have any loose bricks. He has a few loose screws, but no loose bricks!” I said, “Sure he does! What does he do with his money? What does he do with his time? And what does he do when he doesn’t have anything else to do?”
In one family I know, the daughter wouldn’t talk to her mother. But the mum knew that her daughter wanted to learn to drive – so she offered to take her out driving. Pretty soon, as they drove, the daughter started talking.
I think if adults are willing to talk about the things that really interest their kids, then eventually those lines of communication will open up. A lot of times, we parents want a conversation that goes a different way: we want to discuss our relationship, or how they need to change their behaviour, or why it’s time they cleaned their rooms – but we can’t start there. We have to drop our own agenda in order to connect. We have to start with the loose brick. When we show a little interest in the kid’s big interest, then we can break through that wall.
GV: It’s encouraging to learn that those walls don’t have to remain a permanent feature. But let’s take it a step further. In this modern world of texting, tweeting and Facebook, how do parents encourage face-to-face interaction? It seems that most teens’ communication and entertainment is conducted ‘virtually’ these days!
BRAD: Yeah, it really can be daunting!
So many young people not only communicate virtually by texting and messaging – they also live vicariously through their devices. I go to youth dances occasionally, and the boys don’t even go up and ask a girl to dance – they text her from across the room!
A college student I know went out with a girl and the whole time he was trying to talk to her, she was texting. Every time her phone would buzz, she’d look at it and sometimes she’d even text someone back. He got really frustrated, and when they were driving home neither of them was saying much. He dropped her off at her house, and she went in and immediately texted him to say, “What’s wrong? I can tell that something’s wrong …”
GV: Communicating solely by text does seem to be the ‘new normal’. Is this just an extreme example, or do you think it’s a growing problem for young people today?
BRAD: Kids seem to feel there’s safety in the distance provided by these electronic forms of communicating. But that distance can also lead to an inability to form real relationships – which has some scary consequences down the road when it comes to marriage, when it comes to family-life, even when it comes to work interactions. So I think that, even if electronics is a kid’s big interest (and you can open the door by paying attention to that interest), you’ll want to try and steer them away from being so completely dependent on their devices.
GV: What about creating healthy communication-habits within our own family? Like establishing a family mealtime – is it really that important?
BRAD: I think it’s vital. It’s this one time of day where we can say, “Electronics are off, TV is off, and we’re going to eat together.” We have to eat anyway! And if dinnertime doesn’t work for your family, try lunch, breakfast, or even a bedtime snack. But find a time when the family can get together and eat. The eating is a bonding experience – it’s a comforting experience – and it’s one of the best ways to encourage our kids to have face-to-face communication.
When kids aren’t in that habit, they might fight it at first – but deep down, they need and want to connect. Teenagers might say, “I don’t want to have family time together! I don’t want to eat with my family! I don’t want to go on a family vacation!” – but, secretly, they do. When they’re older, they always look back and remember that time spent together. They remember when, as a family, they’d play together, read together, do puzzles together, share meals … and eating together just opens the door for that kind of interaction.
GV: When teens are resistant to being at the table together, how do you suggest getting conversation going?
BRAD: Well, if there are no electronics at the table (so they can’t be texting somebody else at the same time) then that automatically opens up the conversation. And then we might just start with some good, open-ended questions – questions that don’t have just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. We need to leave it more open in the hope that kids might have something to say that goes beyond a one-word answer.
QUESTIONS TO GET EVERYONE CHATTING:
- What was your favourite part of school today?
- Was anyone absent from your class?
- If you could go on a trip anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
- What was the best gift you ever received?
- What’s your earliest memory of something fun or exciting happening?
Kids usually like finding out about relatives, so stories about the family – funny memories about Grandma or amusing stories about your own childhood – are a good way of making a connection. Even just starting with, “I’ve used your great-aunt’s recipe for this casserole we’re having tonight. We used to get together at her house and …” Kids usually have a high interest in those stories because it’s family – it’s their roots. You can even check out a genealogy site, like Ancestry.com, and it’ll tell you if you’re related to any famous people, which would be another great conversation-starter!
GV: Another area where we meet resistance is chores! How on earth do we get our teenager to help out and pitch in around the house?
BRAD: The key is keeping the chores short – and fair. Everyone has a job, and we rotate those jobs so it’s not the same kid who always has to clean the bathroom or take out the garbage. But family chores are a wonderful way to instil in kids that sense of responsibility and obligation. They need to understand that they can serve as well as being served – and this is a great way for them all to make a practical contribution to the household. You need to explain, of course, that it’s not just them – everyone has a chore to do.
In our own home, it’s also been helpful when we do chores at the same time. Instead of always griping at our kids, “You need to clean your room!” or “You need to mow the lawn!” we say, “Okay, we’re going to set this timer for 20 minutes. Here are the jobs, here’s what everyone’s going to do – and I’m going to be working at the same time you’re working.” Keep it short, and keep it an activity you do together.
GV: We want our teens’ help, for sure. But we also want their love and their trust. What’s the best way to create and maintain a trusting relationship with our kids?
BRAD: Trust can be built through compliments and respect. We’re going to be in a much better position to give them suggestions for improvement if we’ve got a good track record for noticing the positive and complimenting them. We’re going to be in a better position for our teen to take our feedback, too, because we’re in a trusting relationship with him – he knows that we like him, value him, and notice the good things that he’s doing.
Studies have shown that the number of negative comments kids receive far outnumber the positive, but, ideally, it should be the opposite. As parents, we usually go straight to the thing that needs improving – but we’ve got to retrain ourselves to look first at the positive. The world can be brutal – teens are bombarded by negative feedback from peers and from others out there in the world – and we need to make sure that we’ve given them the positive to offset the negative.
GV: Sometimes it can feel a bit awkward saying the nice things – like “Oh, thanks for washing the dishes!” or “I appreciated you coming home on time!”…
BRAD: Yeah, sometimes parents think it sounds a bit silly. But, really, kids need it! Positive comments and compliments are food for the spirit.
You know how much food their growing bodies need – well, their growing spirits need just as much food, and that food comes from positive reinforcement. You never have to apologise or feel awkward for giving your kids uplifting feedback and encouragement.
GV: How about showing respect to our kids? As parents, we might’ve grown up with the idea of showing respect to elders, but respecting teens isn’t necessarily something we’ve been taught. How does it work?
BRAD: We can start by extending some common courtesies to kids – like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And we have to remember that, when a kid finally does talk, it’s time to focus on the kid. If you’re folding laundry and only half-listening, or you’re busy correcting their grammar, they’re not going to feel any respect from you.
If you were in a job interview or talking with your boss, you’d give them your undivided attention – you wouldn’t expect them to just talk while you’re texting or cooking dinner – and you wouldn’t point out their verbal mistakes. If we can show our kids respect, it helps build that relationship of trust – and makes it more likely that they, in turn, will respect our input.
GV: Speaking of giving input, how can we offer our teens advice without putting them on the defensive so that those brick walls go back up?
BRAD: Actually, we parents aren’t always the best people to give kids the feedback they need! Sometimes we’re better to work with others to help our kids grow and learn.
After one of my daughter’s primary school choir performances I said to her, “Honey, you need to smile more. All the other kids were smiling, but you weren’t …” She was so mad at me, and so offended! I realised then that I wasn’t the best person to give her that kind of feedback – it was more important for me to just be her cheerleader. All I really needed to do was mention to the director of the group what I’d noticed and ask him to encourage her to smile.
The point is, we’re allowed to reach out to others (teachers, friends, coaches, etc) and get them to help us carry that burden of correction. It’s helpful when our standards or suggestions can be reinforced by people outside our family.
Another thing we can do as we talk one-on-one with our kids is to ask them questions – rather than just making comments. Instead of telling her that she should do this or that, you can ask your teen, “What’s happening here?” If she’s just had a big fight with her sister, don’t say, “You two are always fighting!” – instead, ask questions that might help her work through the conflict. Asking questions (rather than launching into another lecture) helps your teen find solutions for herself.
When your teenage son comes home late you could sit down and ask, “Hey, what’s going on here? You know you have a curfew – why do you keep breaking it?” Asking questions and listening is always better than telling and demanding and lecturing.
QUESTIONS TO HELP TEENS FIND SOLUTIONS:
- What’s going on here?
- Is this helping you?
- Is this getting you closer to your goals?
- Is this making you happy?
- Is this helping our family?’
- What can we do about it?
- How can we solve this?
- What are you going to do about it?
GV: Another issue: How can we help our teens learn to be responsible for their own actions instead of expecting us to ‘fix’ everything for them?
BRAD: We shouldn’t be too quick to shield kids from natural consequences. If they didn’t take the garbage out, and the garbage starts smelling, then that’s a natural consequence. If we shield them from that natural consequence then they don’t feel the need to do anything differently.
If my teen gets a speeding ticket and then I pay it for him, I’m taking away the sting of the consequence that could be a real lesson. And same thing if the teacher says, “This is the due date,” but I go and ask for another week – then I’m enabling the bad behaviour.
If kids get themselves into a situation that’s awkward, then they need to be able to feel that. And they need to be able to get themselves out of it, rather than us rescuing them. Don’t be too quick to rescue them, to solve the problem, or to enable them. Just let them struggle a bit by themselves.
GV: Okay, we should ease up on controlling everything so our teens are encouraged to become more responsible – but how do we avoid relinquishing our parental role entirely while our teens are becoming a little more independent?
BRAD: Probably the best way to accomplish this is by just staying informed with what’s happening. Knowing who your child’s with, knowing where she is – I don’t think that’s being unrealistic or inappropriate. One boy told me his mum checks his history on the Internet to see what sites he’s looked at, and he said, “Some people call that snooping, but my mum says it’s just good old-fashioned parenting!”
Too often parents just hand over the controls, and the kids go wherever they want and do whatever they want. In between that extreme and the opposite extreme of being too controlling is the happy medium of just being informed. You say, “Okay, you can go out with your friends, but I need to know who you’re with, where you’re going, and when you’ll be back.” That way you’re letting your teen know that you need to be informed of the situation. By staying informed, parents can then create those boundaries and give kids some fences within which there’s plenty of room to run.
GV: How about alcohol and drugs? How can parents encourage their kids to make healthy choices and avoid the pain of addiction?
BRAD: The role modelling that parents give is the biggest influence as to whether kids are going to get involved in activities like drinking or smoking – or avoid them. One of the best things we can do as parents is to look at ourselves. We need to ask, “Are there some bad habits in my life that I need to correct?” The parent whose own choices aren’t perfect but who’s trying to do better is in a much stronger position to encourage his kids to avoid those behaviours, than the parent who just says, “Oh, well, you gotta die of something!”
GV: We sometimes hear about parents allowing kids to drink at home “so they don’t rebel against stricter boundaries” – but it sounds like you mightn’t agree?
BRAD: That would be right! To give that kind of go-ahead to kids is not teaching them to be responsible. It’s giving them something that’s potentially very dangerous.
DANGER – KEEP CLEAR!
I’m not going to let my 12-year-old drive so that he can learn to be responsible behind the wheel. And I’m not going to give a four-year-old a loaded gun to teach him gun-safety. We need to set some very clear expectations when it comes to things that can cause serious harm.
Parents who buy beer or cigarettes for their kids, thinking that somehow that’s getting in good with them (like “I’m being a friend”) are wrong, in my opinion. That’s like giving the kid a bomb to play with.
There’s got to be a time when you say, “I’m a parent and not a friend. I need to be able to point out when kids are doing something that’s potentially dangerous or unhealthy, and draw some lines there.”
GV: Something else modern parents often struggle with is the increasing pressure for kids to seize every opportunity presented to them – with some kids taking on too much and burning out. What’s the best way to ensure that our teens maintain a healthy balance?
BRAD: If it’s a matter of doing too many activities, parents simply need to limit them. They need to enforce limits on extracurricular activities and even time with friends – just as they need to enforce limits on screen-time.
The pressure in today’s world is huge. Previous generations have dealt with peer pressure – but in a small circle. Kids today are dealing with pressure in a global circle: they are bombarded with it from all sides. Websites like Facebook and Pinterest make it seem like everyone else’s life is perfect – and there’s this extreme pressure on teens to be equally perfect. If we’re not careful, it can lead to kids just shutting down. They get to a point where they feel they can’t be what they’re supposed to be, so they’re not even going to try. They retreat into escapes – those escapes can be alcohol, porn, video games, sex, eating – anything they can escape into to make themselves feel better.
We need to limit the time our kids can spend checking out everyone else’s ‘perfect life’. And we need to remind them that they don’t have to do it alone – they’ve got the help of parents, teachers, friends, God …
GV: Really? God? Wouldn’t many teens baulk at the idea of God as a member of their support team?
BRAD: Well, there’s a spiritual side to each person – even teens! And it needs to be nurtured. That’s part of the solution, too. Religion or spirituality can help us gain perspective – it’s a way to find the balance in our lives between what’s really important and what’s not important.
A VALUABLE TOOL
Families who are part of a healthy religious community and parents who nurture a sense of spirituality in their children do seem to manage better – it’s one more valuable tool that we have in our parenting toolbox, and it can really be a help.
GV: So, to sum up, your recipe for happier, less-prickly teens is nurture their connections with us, others and God … plus maintain safe boundaries for them, even if our kids chafe a bit at those limits?
BRAD: We all have to learn to work within some limits. In our own lives as adults we deal with limits all the time – taxes, car insurance, restrictions on time and money – and it’s good for us.
When we lived in New Zealand for six months, my son wanted to go bungee-jumping. He was old enough, and he gave me a very compelling argument: “Dad, it was invented here!” So when we went to Queenstown, I finally let him go bungee-jumping. And as I watched him leap (which scared me to death, by-the-way!)I realised that it’s the bungee-cord that allows him to fly. The one who takes off the harness or the bungee-cord is the one who’s going to fall.
With kids, we need to put some limits on them – we need to make sure they have a bungee-cord! Those limits are not their enemy – they actually give them the freedom to fly. Too many parents out there neglect to impose limits on their kids because they want to give their kids their freedom – but they’re then only free to fall.
As parents, when we impose reasonable limits we’re really putting our teen in a position to fly.
‘HOW TO HUG A HEDGEHOG’ BY BRAD WILCOX AND JERRICK ROBBINS IS AVAILABLE FROM EXISLE PUBLISHING – WWW.EXISLEPUBLISHING.CO.NZ