When I asked a good friend whether there's anything she regrets saying in front of her teenager, she responded "pretty much everything I've ever said."
Since I have two teenagers and one preteen myself, I know what she means. When it comes to efforts to engage in real and meaningful dialogue with one's teenager, complicated doesn't even begin to describe the terrain. And that's because, as parents, we often talk at our teens and not with them.
At least that's the way it seems from what I've experienced. I asked a few other friends how they interact with their teens.
One said: "My rule is not to repeat or discuss in front of my teenagers anything another parent has said about his/her child. This does not, of course, include accolades. I'm talking about when parents are expressing frustration about something their child did."
Another friend said she never uses the word "fat" in front of her teenagers and never tells them to "shut up." She also said it's a good idea never to ask "what the hell were you thinking?" Most times, she noted, you really don't want to know the answer.
Still another friend said it's never a good idea to talk about people in front of your kids or to speak badly about their teachers.
In the end, after exchanging ideas with a number of parents of teens, I came up with my own personal list of seven things never to say to your teenager. If you have your own ideas, please feel free to note them in comments.
1. "How was school today?"
I can't tell you how many times I've asked this question, only to be met with a one-word response -- usually "good" or "fine" -- and a view of my teenager's back as he walked from the room. It's so much better to ask a specific question. "How was that algebra test?" "Was the algebra test as hard as you thought it would be?"
2. "Around" or "about."
Saying you want your teen home "around 10 p.m." is opening curfew up to a vast world of interpretation. With my teens I have to be as specific as possible. You must be home by 10 p.m. and no later. I would like you to take out the trash AND empty the dishwasher -- within the next 10 minutes. Be home by 10 p.m. on Saturday night, March 23, 2013.
3. "You can't imagine what I've been through today" or "you can't imagine the day I've had" when your teen tries to ask you about something when you get home from work.
Again, I've been guilty of saying something like this many times. And I have had bad days where all I wanted to do was pour a glass of wine and go up to bed. But your teen needs you to be present -- even when you may not feel like it.
4. "Look how your sister (brother) does her homework."
It's hurtful to compare your children to one another in this way. And comparisons only needlessly pit siblings against one another. Each child is unique with his or her own special characteristics. Focus on the good.
5. "I hate you too."
Rare is the parent who hasn't been told they're hated. But when you let your anger get the better of you and you say "I hate you" back, it's immature and and just plain wrong. You're not your child's peer but you are supposed to be their cheerleader and their role model.
6. "Just give me a minute!"
If only I had a dime for each time I've said this on many a busy day. But I believe it tells your kids you are brushing them off. And I don't want to do that. Better to say, I think, that you need to finish up a quick task and that you'll be with them in a few minutes. And then actually BE with them in a few minutes.
7. "Good job!"
I used to say this all the time to my kids until I realized I was saying it so much -- it had lost all its meaning. Obviously you should praise and encourage your kids. But don't just keep saying "good job" if there really isn't anything to say "good job" about.