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What I’ve learned about talking to teens from my teenage siblings

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 09/24/22

Having much younger siblings is really the best, and I’ve learned a lot from these relationships.

I have the immense good fortune to be the oldest of a big family, and my two youngest siblings are 12+ years younger than me. 

Having much younger siblings is the best gift my parents ever gave me. I’m very close with them and they bring so much joy and fun to my life. And they’re the best babysitters ever; my kids are absolutely nuts about them!

I sometimes joke that having much younger siblings is kind of like a mini “test run” for parenting. I had a front row seat to my little siblings growing up, from toddler tantrums to teenage independence. I got to see how my parents handled it and learn from these situations, and I’ve also learned a lot from my own relationships with them.

As my youngest siblings moved away to go to college recently, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned from them. To be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes and missteps, and I’ve done things I will be careful not to repeat with my own children. 

At the same time, there are a lot of things that have gone wonderfully well, and I really want to replicate those things when my kids are teens. In fact, I often tell my younger siblings that I hope my kids turn out just like them!

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

1Snooping for information will backfire

All right, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way first. This is the biggest mistake I made with my teenage siblings, a lesson I learned the hard way. I will be careful not to repeat this mistake with my own kids.

Once I was really curious about a social situation for one of my younger siblings, and when they weren’t forthcoming, I asked a mutual friend to find out more. My friend ended up letting it slip that I had been digging for information.

My younger sibling was furious with me, and even worse, it breached the trust in our relationship. It took a long time before that sibling would share anything personal or private with me again. 

I really regretted snooping and being nosy. This was 100% my bad. When my kids are teens, I will work hard not to pry or snoop (even though it can be tempting). I will do everything I can to show I trust them and give them the respect they deserve.

2Listen more than you speak, and remember what they tell you

Really listening seems so obvious, but it makes such a big difference! One of my younger siblings recently told me, “I like telling you what’s going on with my friends because you actually remember them and what I told you about them before.”

The simple effort to ask about their closest friends and remember who is who goes such a long way to encourage teens to share things with you. 

3Talk while doing something together

Whether it’s shooting hoops or baking cookies, doing something a teen enjoys is a natural opportunity for a sincere conversation. And it makes it much easier for them to open up when there’s something to do with their hands.

4Step softly around the hard topics

Teens deal with a lot of difficult situations, and often they might feel as though no one can understand what they’re going through. So I’ve found it’s so important to make sure they feel seen, heard and understood.

Giving a big speech about my own teenage struggles (“Well, when I was your age …”) goes over like a lead balloon. So does asking intense, prying questions about personal topics. 

Instead, what I usually do is briefly mention that I or a friend struggled with a certain issue, then drop it unless they choose to ask more about it or continue the conversation. 

Often, just mentioning the hard topic is enough to trigger some questions and conversation about it. At that point, you can offer some direction or helpful suggestions. And if it doesn’t lead to more conversation, that’s probably a sign that they don’t need to talk about that particular issue.

5Leave aside any criticism, anger, or judgment

When tough things come up, it can be tempting to get annoyed at how the situation was handled (“Well, why didn’t you? You really should have …”). But this is absolutely going to backfire, as they’ll never want to tell you private things if your response is angry or critical.

I try hard to respond with calm composure, no matter how surprised or upset I feel. I want them to know that I can handle whatever they share with me. It’s not going to send me into a tailspin, and I’m not going to criticize them or their friends. 

The goal is to be the kind of person that’s easy to open up to. A big part of that is leaving aside any criticism or judgment, and instead giving out empathy, encouragement and understanding in spades.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t nudge them in the right direction! But the most important thing is to offer a safe, loving, open space where they can get a listening ear and some judicious advice. 

All this is fairly easy to do when the teen is your little brother or sister, and they naturally look up to you (and know you won’t punish them for breaking the rules!). It’s a very different situation when you’re disciplining your own child.

But my sincere prayer is that I can bring this kind of attentive but calm and respectful energy to parenting my own teens some day. I’m hoping my experience with my younger siblings will guide me to treat my own kids the same way. And if all else fails, I’m so glad to know they can always go to their amazing young aunts and uncles for advice!

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