Having the Hard Conversations

This week, in light of a new survey about drugs, alcohol, mental health, and thoughts of suicide among Nova Scotia’s teens, I look at having the hard conversations with your kids about how they’re doing.

I very much appreciated the advice of Dr. Kathleen Pajer, the head of the psychiatry department at the IWK Health Centre. She’s also the mother of five grown kids including four boys–three of whom she described as “challenging”–so she knows what she’s talking about.

She gave the wise advice of getting kids in the car and talking “at” them, if need be. (Don’t expect them to pour their hearts out right away.) I think this is a good approach. I don’t have teens of my own yet, but I spent many years as a church  youth leader and basketball coach. Most of the deepest conversations I had with kids happened in the car, or while playing video games, or over MSN Messenger at 11 p.m.  Boys, especially, will gradually open up if they’re engaged in something else and they have a little distance where they don’t have to make direct eye contact.

Dr. Pajer said something else I appreciated that I didn’t have room to fit in my column.  She said there are times it’s appropriate *not* to talk — to declare a conversation over and walk away. This is especially appropriate if your kid has screwed up, you’ve assigned a consequence, and he keeps trying to argue or negotiate.

“You can say, ‘I will talk to you about anything else but I will not talk to you about this. It is over and it is done,'” she told me.

It’s timely advice for us. We already wrestle with this with our eight-year-old, a budding lawyer who can always find an angle to try to convince us he’s in the right. There are times we just have to say, “This conversation is over and we’re not discussing it anymore.”

Sometimes I feel slightly guilty, because we want our kids to be able to express themselves and we don’t want them to feel like they’re not being heard. But it’s important to set boundaries too. If you’ve made up your mind and you’ve handed out a consequence that’s fair and reasonable, it’s OK to shut things down and move on.


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