Dr Rosina McAlpine, Parenting Expert and CEO of Win Win Parenting believes that parents and teens are still adjusting to who the child is becoming.
“As children grow, especially in those adolescent or teen years they are becoming a person, they’re finding their way in the world, they are finding their personality, their wishes, who they want to be in the world. Parents are needing to guide and support of course, but also let go and allow teenagers to become the person to have the opinions, to grow into the person they are going to grow into. So that’s why sometimes it’s difficult to communicate.”
Especially approaching the topics of grades, wellbeing and relationships at school children and teenagers can become closed off to communication.
Getting your child to open up about their day at school doesn’t always feel natural.
Dr McAlpine suggests the best time for communicating with your child about school is when your child is a ‘little bit trapped with you’.
Scenarios where parents may have their child’s attention may include:
Driving in the car;
In their room at night when they are in bed; or
On a walk.
The best starting point to effectively communicating with your child about school is to ask open-ended questions.
Asking more specific questions, opens up your conversation to more than ‘how was your day?’.
Starting with more positive, open-ended questions may also allow you to open up the conversation to more negative topics about their day.
Dr McAlpine suggests the question “tell me one challenging thing you experienced today or that you have overcome today?”.
It’s already saying you know every day can have a challenging thing and what was it and how did you overcome it.
Another approach could be to just identify your child’s emotions.
“You might just say look I’ve got the feeling you might be a bit down – have you had some negative thoughts today, has something negative happened today? If something negative happened what might it have been? Are you anxious about something?”
Teenagers often do not want parents to be involved or interfere with school life. They can lack communication because they are concerned about what parents would do with that information.
Dr McAlpine believes that communication is opened up if children feel that they can tell you anything without you ‘going off the deep end’, punishing them or being disappointed in them.
No child is going to put their hand up to tell you that they’ve done the wrong thing if they’re gonna get punished or that they’ve done the wrong thing if you’re gonna be disappointed.
She suggests taking a collaborative problem solving approach.
If you insist and say look I’m not gonna rush in, I’m just gonna listen and I’m just gonna understand, I’m not gonna tell you what to do but we could explore options together.
Especially as kids get older, they don’t want to be told they want to have opinions and be able to problem solve themselves.
With her own children, Dr McAlpine reminds them that they are a kid and still learning and that she is an adult and still learning.
“Knowing that adults make mistakes. So if adults make mistakes, kids can surely make mistakes too.”
Asking your child to do school work, homework or study is not always effective.
Dr McAlpine suggests opening up communication to your child’s aspirations.
“If they’ve got a clear idea of where they want to go then parents and children are in a really good position to negotiate.”
For example, if your child wants to be an engineer or a doctor, it is ok to remind them they need those grades to be able to achieve that goal.
When communicating with your child about school work, you can motivate them with the job, career or life that they want to achieve.
It is a little more difficult to motivate your child to do school work if they are unsure about their future pathway.
“You can say look if you don’t put your effort in now to learn to discipline yourself and do this, it’s going to close your options in the future. The more self-discipline you’ve got, the more effort you put in, the more options you’ve got in life open up for you.”
Another strategy is to keep it short and ask your child to make a 10-15 minute start on school work, or let them know they won’t be able to do other things until they complete their work.
Communicating with your child about bad grades can be difficult. Parents need to set boundaries whilst balancing their child’s growing independence.
Dr McAlpine explains, The Win Win parenting approach moves away from ‘award, discipline and punishment’ and looks at what caused the issue.
“The question is, how did we get here?” said Dr McAlpine.
If your child is exhibiting bad behaviour at school or lower grades, remember that they are open to growing and changing. Dr McAlpine emphasises the key is that parents and children both want a good outcome.
“It might be that the child hasn’t put enough effort in, so the quick fix is, alright you’ve got low grades – we’ve talked about this before. If you want to be an engineer or a hairdresser you’re gonna have to do some study and learn to have a great life.
So what can we do together to help you put more effort?
Do we need to go to tutoring? Do we need to practice more, go and see the teacher or get some workbooks?”
Dr McAlpine recommends teaching your child ‘internal comfort’ not ‘external comfort’ when communicating with them about changing their behaviour.
This form of communication teaches important values.
External comfort can look like rewarding your child with something if they are good, or not giving iPad time if they are bad.
“That means that (their) whole existence is all about doing things that please you, so (they) get what (they) want; and avoiding doing things that don’t please you so (they) don’t miss out on what (they) want.”
It is important for children to understand internal comfort.
“What is good behaviour and what’s not good behaviour?
Good behaviour is behaviour that is helpful to me and doesn’t harm others around me. But unhelpful behaviour can harm me and others around me. In this case, how to achieve grades if they are achieving the grades that are negative.”
Dr McAlpine leaves parents with two main tips for communicating with your child about school:
It is important to listen to your child before following your instincts to guide them.
Dr McAlpine uses the following example:
If a child wakes up for school in the morning and says ‘I’m not going to school I’m so ugly’, it is not effective to tell them ‘you look so beautiful’.
“In their attempts to be kind to their child, they did not listen, they did not hear what their child just said.”
She suggests asking something like ‘I’m so sorry that you woke up this morning feeling less attractive than you want to feel, what’s brought that on?’
If they say something like a zit, their hair or clothes you can remind them ‘when you say ugly you mean that your hair’s not right, or, your clothes are not right.’
From there you can decide what to do, put a bit of makeup on the zit or choose different clothing in the wardrobe.
Dr McAlpine shares one of her favourite strategies when communicating with your teen is to listen for 5 minutes.
“I say I’m not even going to respond so that I don’t interrupt you and ask you questions and I’ll just let you talk for 5 minutes.”
You and your child should have respectful communication through listening.
“It’s more about inviting problem solving, asking, communicating together rather than yelling.”
Children will often not communicate if they feel like they might get in trouble or disappoint their parents.
“You just don’t dob yourself in.”
Parents should still have boundaries when communicating with their child.
If your child is not communicating respectfully, Dr McAlpine suggests asking them to calm down and come back when they are ready to problem solve together.
“Role-model what you want, be positive in terms of how you approach things with teens.”