Ask my teenagers questions?
What questions? How many questions? Does that mean I can interrogate them?!!
Since writing about asking our teens good questions, rather than simply informing them of our desires, I’ve received many emails. The majority of those emails asked us to explain exactly “what” those questions should look like and “how” in the world to make the transition from directing our teens toward obedience to instead empowering our teens to make their own decisions.
Let’s start with the transition from authority to coach or mentor. When our children are little, we naturally give them instructions and we expect them to follow those instructions. For example, we say things like:
“You must ask me if you want a snack.”
“You may not go outside until your homework is completed.”
“You must be in bed with the light out by eight o’clock.”
Such instructions are completely acceptable when our children are little. However, we’ve observed too many parents who fail to make the transition when their children become teenagers. To insist that our teens seek our permission for activities over which they should take ownership and make their own decisions is disrespectful and degrading.
If our children have proven themselves faithful in fulfilling their responsibilities, we must be faithful to allow them freedom in the decision-making process.
Are there questions that just shouldn’t be asked? ABSOLUTELY!
Any question that is accusatory or pointed in nature will only cause a defensive response from our teens. The best questions are phrased in such a way that our teens can take ownership of whatever we are asking about at the moment. Here are some examples of open-ended questions that will prompt conversation, rather than break down communication.
If you see your teen headed out for the day in shorts and you know that it’s going to be cold out, you could say:
“Have you seen today’s weather forecast?” or “Did you want to going to grab a coat?”
These questions allow our children to make the clothing-related decision on their own. They can make the decision and quite frankly, they get to live with that decision. Sometimes, we’ll want to pull our hair out as we watch them leave our house in shorts on a cold day, but shivering through classes is a great motivator to make wiser decisions!
When your daughter or son tells you that they’re interested in another teenager, there are good questions to begin a conversation and there are bad, interrogating questions that will simply cause our teens to shut down and lock us out. Some of the “bad questions” are certainly appropriate further down the road, but initially they serve no good purpose. Bad questions would look like this:
“How well do you know this person?”
“Do they drink, smoke, do drugs, go to movies, _______________?” (Fill in your own pet inquiry)
“Where do their parents work?”
“Whom do they hang around with?”
While all of these questions are great at a later date, when your teen first mentions a new “interest,” such questions seem judgmental and somewhat accusatory. Better first questions that build communication would be:
“What do you find attractive about this person?”
“What good qualities do you see in his/her life?”
“As you’re getting to know this person is it easy to talk to them?”
Questions like these allow our teens to share their hearts with us. Such questions will help our teens think through their attraction and really consider why they are drawn to the other young person. Instead of questions that focus on “what” the other young person is like, these questions focus on “who” the other young person is on the inside… where it really matters.
Here are a couple more scenarios…
If your son or daughter runs out of gasoline, it would be easy to ask a pointed questions like:
“How did you run out of gas?” (Uh… the tank was empty!) or “Didn’t you look at your gas gauge?” (Obviously not)
Any question that could be ended with the words, “You idiot!” is a question that will only cause defensiveness and strife. That’s a question that shouldn’t be asked! Here are some examples of better responses:
“You ran out of gas? Boy that stinks! Do you have a plan to keep that from happening again?” or
“Running out of gas is the worst! Do you think it would help to fill up more often?”
Because these questions don’t imply a motive, (i.e. our teen is an irresponsible idiot) they allow our teens to take ownership of their mistake and make a plan for future success. Sometimes, there no question needed. Sometimes, the right response is simply to empathize with our teen’s dilemma or to just remain silent.
One more example…
You see that your teen is doing poorly in school and you’re convinced it’s because they stay up too late and don’t use their time wisely. You could say something like this to your teen:
“Your grades are bad, so from now on you’re going to bed at 10:00 and there will be no television or computer time until your homework is done.”
While such a response would be perfectly appropriate for your elementary aged child, or even your middle-schooler, choosing to “lay down the law” for your teenager doesn’t give them the opportunity to take ownership of their own grades and study habits. A better way to approach the situation is by asking them questions like these:
“You seem to be struggling with your school work. How can I help you succeed?” or
“Biology sure is a tough subject. Have you made a plan to get some help?”
I know it’s tempting to provide our teens with the obvious solution to their poor grades, but to do so is to rob them of their need to take personal responsibility.
We cannot micromanage our teen’s lives and then expect them to be prepared to successfully navigate adulthood!
When we ask good questions that cause our teens to seriously think through their own decisions, when we make ourselves available as a resource for help and counsel, and when we discipline ourselves not to over-react when they make the inevitable errors in judgment we will accomplish several important goals.
Our teens will learn to be responsible for their lives and choices.
We’ll model trust and confidence in our teens as we “take our fingers” off of their decision-making process.
Our homes will become a safe place of relationship-building communication and open conversation.
Making the transition isn’t easy, but it’s so important if we want our teenagers to grow and mature. Transitional-parenting will cause us to grow as well and that growth will make our relationships with our teens sweet and rewarding.