How To Communicate with Your Teen – Book Review

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Are you eternally reminding your teen to do his homework? Are you tired of the squabbling, cajoling or threatening you do every night about her grades? Does he tune you out, flare up in anger or ‘yes’ you to death and then ignore your advise entirely?

This kind of dynamic can be incredibly frustrating and heart-breaking. I’ve seen parents try to talk to their teens about school and hit these kinds of walls. If you’re dealing with something like this, I’d like to recommend a book that really helped me shift my relationships with my students.

How To Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish has been a key foundational text for my work as a tutor (and as a mom). It has helped me get past being frustrated by my inability to help kids move through their anger or anxiety and being stymied when they resist our work. The book gave me concrete tools for creating a a comfortable relationship with my students. I became a whole better at steadily shifting a teen’s outlook on what it is like to work with me and to work on school.

How To Talk So Kids Can Learn‘s emphasis is on slightly younger kids, though there are a number of examples dealing with teens in the book. Either way, I’ve found that all the techniques in it apply to teens as well as younger kids. The book starts with how to deal with kids’ feeling that get in the way of learning and then addresses issues like how to invite cooperation, avoid punishment, problem solve together and praise effectively. Each chapter includes cartoon scenarios (with real-life dialogue) and questions and stories from teachers and parents.

One key idea that helped me work with my teens was the thought that if a student tells me that To Kill a Mockingbird is boring and stupid it shuts him down if I try to convince him otherwise. He shuts down because I’m denying his feelings and experience. As the authors state, I’m sending him the underlying message, “You’re wrong to feel what you feel. Listen to me instead.” Once I stopped doing this and started applying their suggested alternatives like reflecting back what he felt (“it really isn’t easy to listen to a teacher you find boring”) or offering a fantasy idea that affirmed his feelings (“I bet you wish Shakespeare was never assigned in school at all),” the results were terrific. My students felt heard, acknowledged. This went a long way towards helping me help them get past the feelings and behaviors that were stopping them with school.

Another chapter helped me learn to work with my teens to solve a school problem, rather than dictating, cajoling, or pressuring. Adler and Mazlish describe in detail how to work collaboratively with kids to come up with ground rules for how to work. I saw that when my students were an active part of problem solving, they felt a whole lot more empowered and committed to their own success. And are a lot more willing to accept my help.

One of my favorite chapters is the one dealing with praise and criticism. I learned that there are two kinds of praise – evaluative and descriptive. One actually makes kids uncomfortable and the other bolsters their sense of self. The authors argue that if I describe what I see rather than evaluate the student (“your thesis is solid and descriptive, the paragraphs have strong details” vs. “you are great at writing”) then my student assesses and praises himself and walks away with an internal sense of his own worth. It was a tough thing to adjust to, but once I got the hang of it, I saw the difference it made.

Disclosure: Please know that these links are affiliate links and that if you end up making a purchase, I will earn a small commision, at no additional cost to you. Rest assured that I have experience with this product and am recommending it because I genuinely feel that it’ll help you help your teen, not because I could make a commission.


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