My day was good, nothing exceptionally interesting happened at school today, I’m fine, dinner tastes great, thanks mom.
It really only takes only a few moments to answer the most common questions asked at the dinner table. But answering these questions is not a conversation. It’s an exchange of pleasantries. Why has it become the norm that parents and teens only interact when needed? Where have the conversations gone?
When my father passed away when I was 14, my cozy family of three instantly became an even cozier family of two. This necessitated many real (but certainly tough) conversations between my mother and me. These conversations helped both of us encounter grief in healthy and manageable ways and learn to grow in our own ways.
Here are some tips that can hopefully help develop a comfort to have these real and rewarding conversations.
#1: Starting is always the hardest part.
The truth is, there is no easy way to say “I want to talk” because it takes courage to admit something is wrong. You will feel vulnerable, you will feel helpless, you will feel like you are being annoying, you will feel invalid, you will feel dramatic -- any number of these things and more can happen, and together they will push you to wait and wait and wait. But embrace this discomfort. You feel uncomfortable because something is not right, and waiting will not solve the problem. Take 3 deep breaths, and just be honest: you want to talk.
#2: Stay rational, but do not feel compelled to withhold your emotions.
The key to having a real conversation is not to describe or enact our emotions, but to figure out why we feel how we feel. Make sure that before you start, you are in the headspace to recognize you are communicating about what inspires your feelings, not simply communicating your feelings. That said, your feelings are still completely valid, but what’s going to elevate an empathy session to a growth session is learning to recognize and evaluate the discourse of your feelings. Put on your thinking cap and have a box of tissues by your side if you need, and be honest and present about what is going on.
#3: Listen as much as you speak.
The reason why some “conversations” feel like an exchange of pleasantries is because there is no listening, only speaking. You may be answering questions, but you’re not connecting to why they are being asked. “How was your day?” shows care and interest in the minute but certain details that comprise our daily lives; “Did anything interesting happen at school today?” exhibits an effort to connect from a parent’s reality to a teen’s. A real conversation doesn’t just answer questions, prompts, or statements being flung to the responder; it assumes the intent of why things are spoken so that answers and replies are answerable to the core of the conversation itself. So as you speak, be cognizant and attentive of the origin and trajectory of the conversation.
#4: Take notice of feelings and affect, but refrain from comparing them.
Affect (with an “a”) is an emotional reaction to something, and it is important because it makes us feel and react. In a conversation, feelings will rise (see #2), and it is much more effective to just embrace the reality that situations warrant reactions. This approach of keeping an open and loving mind makes conversations non-confrontational, but the one caveat is the conversations must never be carried away in comparing our affect. An example from my life is that it just doesn’t make sense to quantify who is “more miserable” or “grieving more”: my mother, who lost the love of her life and is now widowed, or me, who lost my father, a pillar of my childhood. A conversation is just that -- a conversation, not a debate, a speech, and certainly not a competition for who “has it worse.” Be accepting, open, and loving, and genuine affect will help connect, not deter.
#5: It can start out awkward, but will slowly (but surely) begin to vibe better. Start small.
It is understandable that being able to have open and real conversations doesn’t start at the drop of a hat. You need time and occasion to truly connect affect and acquaint yourself with the perspective of others. That is the reality of having a conversation, and there is no other solution than to just keep trying. Start small -- ask about what you think about the news, here is an interesting quote I read, etc. -- and establish that common ground so when it comes time to have the bigger conversations, you are ready. Time is your friend here.
Not every real conversation has to be deep and inspiring, life-or-death related, or a soul-wrenching heart-to-heart. A real conversation is just that -- listening, responding, caring, taking, giving, and nonjudgmental. Give yourself the space and time to build a solid foundation through farther occasions (such as the news), and you will find yourself opening up bit by bit to be able to talk about more personal matters. Breathe, listen, respond. We are rooting you on, and you are always welcome to contact us to help you get started.