When Kids Want to Talk

We know that trying to fix our children's problems for them doesn't usually work. So what should we do when they want to talk?

By Rhonda Vincent, Ph.D., Director of Educational Training | Mar 21, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

When my teenage son came to talk to me recently about a problem he was having with a friend, I listened to his complaints half-heartedly, and then I tried to fix the issue: “Your friend is doing what he thinks is right. He’s not trying to hurt you. You should think about it from his perspective.” You’ll be very surprised to hear that this did not go over well! Turns out, he didn’t really want me to fix his problem. He simply wanted to get it off his chest.

So the next time he had an issue – he was annoyed at the way his boss was handling the schedule at work – I listened. Then I employed a strategy that I’m familiar with from Love and Logic parenting classes.

First, I empathized with his feelings. “That sounds really frustrating. I can tell that bothered you. That’s gotta be rough.”

Next, I asked, “What are you going to do about this?” Notice the use of the word you. I didn’t say, “What are we going to do about this? Because my son is an (almost) adult with a job, he needs to handle his own issues, when it’s appropriate to do so. (And in this case, when it comes to issues at his job – that’s his issue to handle, not mine.)

Because he’s a teenager, he replied (insert attitude here), “I’m gonna tell her just what I think about her stupid scheduling system!” Then, I said, “Hmmm… how do you think this will work out for you?” This got him thinking through the consequences of his decisions. Kids usually already know what the consequences will be. In this case, he could talk to his boss respectfully, he could complain, or he could quit. He already knows what the potential consequences will be of each, but he might need a little help thinking about those consequences prior to choosing an action.

Then – and this step is important – I gave him permission to solve, or not solve, the problem. Once we’d talked through the issue, he came up with his action plan, and I let him walk away and do what he wanted to do with it. In my most relaxed mom voice, I simply said, “Well, let me know how that works out.”

Does this sound too methodical and structured? Shouldn’t this be a natural conversation between a parent and child? While it might not feel natural (especially at first), I can assure you that it works! When I tried to solve my son’s problem, he got frustrated and walked away. In the second situation, I used a problem-solving approach. This allowed us to have a decent conversation about his frustrations. He felt heard and understood, he processed his options and consequences, and he walked away with a plan.

I used this strategy with my younger daughter who was not doing well in Spanish class. She had plenty of excuses for why she wasn’t doing well, but I knew from talking to her teacher that she simply wasn’t doing the work. So I used the same four steps when she came to complain to me about her poor grade. The process looked slightly different because, developmentally, she’s in a different place. First I said, “I’m sorry you’re frustrated by your grade. I know your grades are really important to you.” (Empathy.)  Then I asked, “So what are you going to do about this?” She shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t able to come up with choices, so I helped provide them for her. I said, “Well, you could keep being mad at your teacher. How do you think that would work out for you?” She agreed that the result would probably not improve her grade. I continued by offering a better choice: “You could make some flash cards to study for your next test. What do you think will happen then?” She seemed like she was done with the conversation, so I simply said, “Let me know how that works out for you.” The next day I walked past her room and overheard her on the phone with her friend. She said, “No, I can’t go. I have to study for my Spanish test.”

Younger kids might need help thinking of choices and consequences, as in my daughter’s case. It’s best to provide the worst option first and then provide increasingly better choices. That way, first she hears about the thing that she doesn’t want to happen, and then she hears about other options that will provide better outcomes for her. Children get used to parents solving problems for them. What they need, though, is practice in building their own problem-solving muscle! This conversation helps give them to tools they need to solve their own issues.

Disclaimer: This is not magic! Nothing will make your kids solve all of their own problems or become perfectly self-motivated little angels. But I can tell you that when we try to solve their problems for them, it simply doesn’t work. Think about it – do you love unsolicited advice? When you go to someone to complain, do you like it when they try to solve your problem? Or do you appreciate someone who truly listens and empathizes with how you feel?

It’s really important to think about where your children are developmentally. When a 17-year old comes to you with an issue, you don’t handle it the way you did when he was seven. When kids are young, it’s our job to instill our values in them and help them as they navigate conflict. As they get older, we need to back off of that slowly. We need to allow them to handle their own conflicts and form their own values. And then we need to be there as listeners, not fixers.