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How to communicate with a teenager

Maintaining a harmonious family life is not always easy when we have teenagers at home, since they're transitioning from childhood to adulthood, with all the emotions that go along with this process. In order to help families have better communication with their children at home, we've spoken with emotional educator Cristina Gutiérrez Lestón who, in Making a home, gives us six tips for communicating with a teenage son or daughter.

We hope that you find it useful!

    More tips for talking to your teenagers

    Cristina Gutiérrez Lestón is an emotional educator and director of "La Granja Ability Training Center", the first farm school with a proprietary Emotional Education Method. She also combines her work at La Granja with training, outreach and her books and educational stories, the latest being published last year: "Growing up with courage: a book for children to conquer their fears and realise their potential".

    Taking advantage of her participation in our Making a home programme, we've taken a moment to ask her some questions to help us better understand our adolescent children and thus improve family communication and, ultimately, our well-being at home.

    Jot down her advice!

    What's the key to maintaining a harmonious family life with teenagers?

    I would say there are three important things. The first is to feel good about ourselves, as mothers and fathers, as this is the best example we can give them to learn from. The second would be trust (etymologically "having faith"). This is all about having trust in our sons and daughters and in all their possibilities, avoiding focussing on the mistakes they make. This will give them strength, self-esteem and, above all, self-confidence, something that's vital at this stage of life and which will encourage them to excel in areas where there's room for improvement. Finally, the third thing, which is very important, is that we, as parents, intentionally generate positive emotions at home: smile and be optimistic, motivated, excited or hopeful.

    How can we connect with our teenage children to understand them and have a better family relationship?

    When we listen to our teenage children, why do we do it? To answer them or to understand them? If it's to understand them, you'll connect with them. If not, you won't.

    With a teenager at home, I think we should hang a huge sign in the kitchen that says: "If you judge, you won't understand. If you understand, you won't judge." It's hard to stop judging, but to prevent them from copying this behaviour, let's try to judge less and understand more about their position, what they think and believe about a situation. If you ask them "How did you reach that conclusion?" or "I think that's an interesting belief, can you explain it to me?" Their answers are usually fascinating, truly! 

    Many teenagers bottle things up and communicating with them is difficult. How can we help them to express themselves and share their problems with their parents?

    Why should they explain their problems to you if you don't do the same? If we make everything appear fine, if we hide our problems at work or with the boss, if we pretend that our relationships with siblings, grandparents or in-laws are always great, deep down we are saying to them, "problems aren't discussed in this house" or "conflicts should be hidden away" or "everything must appear to be perfect". Thus, they'll be unable to solve problems because we haven't taught them how to do so.

    We shouldn't be ashamed to talk about the small, daily battles, and if you've got a problem with a client, for example, talk about it at dinner in a way that your son or daughter can understand. You're not going to traumatise them – if anything's traumatising, it's doing the opposite: pretending everything is all okay! You can say: "What a day I've had. I've got a very angry client and I don't quite know how to manage them." You'll see how your children will ask you about it, show interest and give you creative and original ideas (and they'll never find you at fault, as they tend to seek solutions). This trick is a two-for-one, because they'll gradually begin to talk about their struggles with you as well.

    How can parents get their children to respect the rules at home? Is it right to resort to punishment?

    At La Granja, we have a sign with the phrase "Here we don't punish mistakes, here we repair the effects." And if they've insulted their sister, we don't punish the act (we all make mistakes); rather, we ask them to repair the damage that they've caused: "Your sister is crying. How can you repair what you've caused to happen?" No yelling, no nervousness. With just a bit of patience and the belief that your child will find a way to make things right.

    I always say that we know what kind of mother or father we are when our son or daughter has disappointed us. When we feel they've let us down, we can do two things: honour them or humiliate them. Punishing the mistake, the typical "I can't take any more of this, always insulting your sister!" humiliates them, which leads to discontent, low self-esteem and them coming to believe they're a bad person. Honouring them is knowing that they're a good person, even though they've momentarily done something bad, and essentially helping them to also see this even in their worst moments. This will allow them to seek a way to correct what they've done. When we exchange punishment for repair, our homes will be a friendlier place.

    Should we act as though we're "friends" with our children or just be their parents? 

    We must be mothers and fathers, which implies a sense of affinity and connection that makes relationships precious, unique and special. A friend means friendship, which can be more or less deep, but at the end of the day, they're still just friendships. They play their role, and it's fantastic. But we're much more than a friendship. We must be mentors, teachers of life, skills coaches, promoters of talent. We must be unconditional love, the expectation that we'll fight for them until the end, the strength of the family, the assurance that their home is a refuge and they'll always be welcome there.

    How should we act when faced with the rebelliousness of a teenager? 

    Parents with strong-willed children should be warned of two things while children are still young and begin to show their ways. The first is to establish clear habits and limits on a daily basis. The second is to begin to develop an emotional education, because they'll need it, since their children will challenge them almost every day and if our response is full of anger or frustration, things will not go well. 

    Our strong-willed little ones are very intelligent and have so much strength that they're in this world to make a difference. And this will be for better or worse, depending on the education we've given them. When I see the "rebels" in my work and in the education system, I feel as though there is so much wasted talent. My heart breaks and I find it so unjust, not only for these indomitable children, but also for their suffering mothers and fathers. They were never taught the lessons of emotional education, which is so helpful in regulating temperaments and harnessing their children's strength and talent. 

    When should we seek outside help from a professional to cope with or improve our relationship with our teenager? 

    When we run out of resources and tools to create a functional and peaceful relationship at home. When you or your children feel overwhelmed or when they feel sad for more than three months (apathetic, discouraged, unmotivated, disillusioned, as though there's no hope...). After a global pandemic, these aspects have increased significantly, so let's take action if that's the case. 

    The preventive tool to avoid all of this is an applied science called emotional education. Take advantage of all opportunities to do emotional education activities as a family, and outdoors whenever possible. These kinds of dynamics are quite fun and help to improve relationships (in the family and even at work).  Moreover, there opportunities for natural horsemanship, with farm animals and adventure sports like those we do at La Granja.

    Dream, my friends, and build this immense world, together with your sons and daughters

    Cristina Gutiérrez Lestón

    How can parents help their teenage children mature and grow as individuals?

    It's hard to take care of others if you don't take care of yourself first. It's hard to love well if you don't love yourself first. It's hard to get along with others when you're not doing so with yourself. To help your children, you must first be well yourself. I would start there. My final suggestion comes from this short story:

    A child asks the wise man:

    - How big is the universe?

    And the wise man answers:

    - The universe is as big as your world.

    To which the child, who does not understand the size of their world, asks again:

    - And how big is my world?

    And the wise man answers:

    - Your world, dear child, is as big as your dreams.