Sounding Board

Teenagers have lots of unconventional ideas. They want to overthrow the government. They think school should be abolished. They think you should be allowed to move out at age 15. They believe anarchy would work. When adults hear teens talk about such things, the first thing they do is try to tell the teens exactly why and how such things haven’t, and don’t, and won’t work. At that point, the teen becomes fully convinced that the adult is part of the dysfunctional system that must be disbanded and ignores everything else that adult has to say. The teen then goes happily back to his plans to have school abolished.

So, what is a parent to do when a teenager is talking about “crazy” ideas? Become a Sounding Board, not the Board of Education. Parents who use the following tips, when it comes to teens with grandiose ideas will generally help their teens reach better outcomes than those who preach, criticize, or correct the youngsters.

  1. Listening is not agreeing. You can listen to a teenager for long periods of time and simply hear them out. The act of listening to something is not a statement that you agree with what is being said, only that you have heard what was said. It is absolutely okay to just listen to ideas that seem far-fetched without trying to crush each idea out of existence with the sheer force of logic and facts. It’s okay to just listen.
  2. They have heard you. Your kids have listened to your ideas for over a decade. They can recite your opinions on almost any topic, if sufficient motivation to do so exists. Don’t believe me? Offer your teen $50 to give a 2-minute speech – as if they were you – on any topic about which you feel strongly. Now, that doesn’t mean they agree with your opinions (See item #1.). In any event, they have heard you. You’ve been saying the same things for 12-13 years, and unless your kids have actual mental retardation, they really, really, really know how you feel.
  3. When they need your opinion, they’ll ask. When your kids actually don’t know how you feel because you’ve never told them or because they’ve forgotten, if they need your opinion, they will ask for it. Haven’t they already proven their ability to ask for what they need? Mom, I need new shoes. Mom, I need a ride to the mall. Mom, I need to get an extra thumb drive for a project that’s due tomorrow. Yes, your children have, in 13 years, learned to ask for what they need. When they actually need your opinion or information you have, they can ask for it.
  4. A kid wants to talk about his ideas, not yours. He’s heard yours already (See item #3). However, you probably haven’t heard his, because he’s just forming them right now. They’re brand new ideas and the kid is usually really excited about his unique, one-in-a-million thoughts and he’s very anxious to discuss them with you. The ideas may not seem new or clever or unique to you, but to your kid, they are.
  5. Let the idea hit you and bounce back. Your role as a Sounding Board is to allow the idea to hit you and bounce back. Just hear the idea, don’t judge, modify, reject, debunk, diminish, or ridicule. Just hear. Then, amplify the message and transmit the message back to the child. Reflect back to the kid what you heard, without commenting on the quality of the idea. Reflection sounds like this, “So, you’re thinking about breaking up with Katie,” or “SUV’s are pretty cool and you’d like to have one to drive your friends around,” or “Imagine that, my son wants to be a pro football player!”
  6. They’ll examine their own ideas. If you merely amplify and reflect the message back to them, it allows them to examine their own ideas. When they hear you say that they’re going to be a pro football player, it allows them to actually imagine themselves playing pro football. As you can guess, that’s a very exciting image and it’s okay to let them say more about it. Each time they add to the plan, you can continue to reflect, and maybe even enhance – in a positive way – their projected outcomes. You can say things like, “I could see you being a pro ball player. You’d have the official uniform and you’d be on T.V. and there would be thousands of screaming, adoring fans, that would be so cool!” Now that you’re not criticizing them or their ideas, they have the room to evaluate the idea on their own. Chances are, the idea still sounds pretty good and they’ll go on, discussing other aspects of the plan, eventually getting around to the endless travel, living on a bus, career-ending injuries at the age of 35, and the seemingly inevitable drug or gambling problems. They can’t get to that part of examining the idea unless you allow them the time and space to actually consider their ideas and they cannot do that while you’re busy shooting their ideas down. While you’re destroying their ideas, they’ve got to use their energy to defend their ideas. When you stop attacking them, you give them the room to critically examine their thoughts themselves.
  7. Self-correction sticks. If they decide their idea is no good, they simply discard the idea and think of something else. No big deal. They spend no further time on the discarded idea. No further energy is needed from you to fight the idea, either. It’s just over and everyone gets to move on. On the other hand, engaging in a power struggle with your teen about whether or not their idea is good can be a painful, destructive endeavor that lasts for months or years and ends with a completely destroyed relationship. Frequently, the teen goes ahead and does the foolhearty plan without every really examining it fully and the parents’ worst fears materialize exactly as predicted.
  8. Sometimes they’re right. The final thing I’d like to say is that another reason this procedure is so important is because sometimes the teenagers are right. Sometimes their ideas, although really weird, will work, and you will look like a huge fool for ever having doubted them in the first place. Further, you will lose all credibility going forward, as well, since you were wrong about this thing. Finally, some of the weirdest ideas have turned out to be the best and it would be a shame if your kid had a great idea and because of you they never got to explore it.

If you function as a Sounding Board and not as the Board of Education, your kids will come to you more often, to bounce ideas off of you, and you’ll have a better idea of what they’re up to. You’ll know their hopes, dreams, interests, and developing philosophies. If you’ve been a good and patient listener and a wise Sounding Board, they will ask for your opinion and you’ll be allowed to provide it at crucial decision-making times.

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