Jerrick remembers a time when he was tasked with demolishing a retaining wall in a backyard. He went up to the wall, armed with a sledgehammer, thinking that the job would be easy job and would take a couple hours at most. What he didn’t realize until examining the wall more closely was that this particular wall, rather than having mortar laid on top of each layer of bricks to provide support for further layers, had concrete poured straight down the center of each brick with pieces of steel rebar inserted to provide even better stability. This seems impossible, Jerrick thought.
As the day progressed and the sun beat down on his red, sunburned neck, Jerrick kept swinging away at that wall. Eventually, he was able to knock one brick loose from the others. Once that loose brick was removed, the stability of the entire wall was compromised, and it was a lot easier to knock the rest of it down.
When working with teenagers who have built a wall around themselves, we must first see beyond the wall and then find that loose brick—the one interest, dream, hobby, or ability that will let us penetrate their concrete-enforced, rebar-studded wall. Once the loose brick is discovered, we can work on completely dismantling the walls in order to connect with teenagers and help them in their quest for adulthood.
dIt might take a lot of swings to start, but the wall will come down eventually. Three essential elements of open communication are love, trust, and respect.
A teenager once told us, “I wish my dad would hug me more and show affection to me when something’s wrong or if I’m having a bad day. He used to do so when I was growing up, and it was a good feeling. It’s not that I doubt my father’s love, it’s just that sometimes I need him to tell me he cares for me no matter what I’m doing. I don’t feel a lot of love inside of me right now.”
Perhaps the reason some parents have difficulty talking with teenagers is the way we, as parents, communicate our love. Usually, we tend to take on more of an authoritative role. We dictate rules, demand accountability, and then, if teens comply and put together a good enough track record, finally convey our approval and love. This is backwards.
Our caring and love must be constant and unconditional—given first and given freely through good or bad, right or wrong, brilliant success or utter failure. Regardless of their choices, teenagers need our nonjudgmental love. It becomes the only secure base upon which expectations and accountability can then be built.
One young man finally gathered the courage to discuss some of his past mistakes with a trusted uncle. At the end of the conversation, the young man said, “I feel embarrassed about unloading all this on you. What do you think of me?”
Without a pause, the uncle said, “I love you for it. There isn’t anything you could share with me that would cause me to love you less.” The young man and his uncle enjoyed not only continued open communication but also a deeper friendship from that time forward.
Brad attended a youth gathering in Arkansas where young people came from many different areas, and no one seemed to know anyone else. Everyone was feeling a little insecure and uncomfortable.
At the back of the room, he noticed a boy with fully grown hands on the ends of stubs at his shoulders, but no arms. Everyone walked past without looking at him. You could almost sense that each one was thinking, My mom told me not to stare at people who are different. That day, Brad learned that the opposite of love is not hate. Rather, it is indifference. Even hate recognizes that someone is standing there.
He wondered, How am I going to involve this boy? On the other side of the room, he saw another boy who stood alone. He was heavyset and obviously feeling out of place. Brad thought to himself, This is perfect. He introduced the two boys to each other and said firmly, “Now, you two be friends.”
They didn’t argue. They just said, “OK.” Those boys stayed together during all the activities. By the end, they really had become good friends.
At the final dance, Brad was dancing in the middle of the dance floor when he suddenly felt that someone was staring at him. He turned, and there behind him stood the boy with no arms. Music was blaring and teenagers were dancing all around them, but the boy didn’t move.
Finally he said, “Mr. Wilcox, my friend and I want to invite you to our pizza party after the dance.”
Brad smiled and said, “I’m honored. I’d be happy to come. You can count on it.”
The boy looked at his buddy at the side of the room, gave him a thumbs-up signal, and then turned back to Brad and added, “Mr. Wilcox, we need a phone to call and order the pizza.”
Brad smiled and told him where his briefcase was, adding, “Find my cell phone and go order us some pizza.” The two buddies left excitedly, and Brad turned back to his dancing.
About half an hour later, he felt eyes staring at him again. Sure enough, it was that same boy. “Mr. Wilcox,” he said, “we called and ordered the pizza like you said, but”—he hesitated—“now we need thirteen dollars to pay for it.”
Some pizza party! Brad thought. They invite me to their pizza party, and I am buying. He chuckled and told the boy, “You know where my briefcase is. Go ahead and find my wallet. Pull out thirteen dollars.”
Brad expected another thumbs-up signal. Instead, the young man just stood there looking at him. His eyes filled with tears. All he said was, “Really? You’d do that for me?”
Brad grabbed him and hugged him. Then he looked directly into this new friend’s eyes and said, “Listen, you are worth so much more to me than thirteen dollars.”
Unconditional love and caring can mean everything to young people. (Incidentally, Brad once shared the above story at another youth conference. Afterward, some of the group came up and said, “Mr. Wilcox, we want to invite you to our steak and lobster party!”)
Love is felt often but expressed rarely. Love must be made visible by actions and words. One young woman wrote a letter in which she talked about fighting with her mother and finally making up. “I wondered what I could say to make up with my mom,” she wrote, “but I didn’t have to think long because on Sunday my mom hugged me and said, ‘I love you,’ and I guess our hearts could just feel each other’s pain. Right then we knew we had forgiven each other.”
Touch is one of the most important ways we have to express love. Unlike many adults, most children welcome and even seek touch. Experts claim it is an actual need for children, one that is as essential as their need for food and water. But as adults, we try to convince ourselves otherwise, saying, “That’s just not me anymore. Touchy-feely is not my style.” Yet experts say that, even for adults, touching is a primary means of communicating, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We never outgrow our need for feeling—literally feeling—love.
Jerrick remembers a time when he was preparing to leave home and move to another state. His parents were excited for him, but they were a bit nervous, like any parents would be when a child moves away from home. Just before he left, Jerrick and his mom were talking about some of the fears Jerrick was having about leaving home. After their talk, Jerrick’s mom reached over and gave his hand a good squeeze. No words were communicated between the two of them, but Jerrick felt and understood through that tender touch that his mom understood him, cared about him, and loved him very much.
Brad once had the opportunity to visit with inmates at a maximum-security prison. He spoke with one man who was led into the room with his ankles chained together and his hands chained at his wrists. Because Brad knew this man’s background and his family, he greeted him with a big abrazo or “hug.” The man began to cry. Softly, he said, “That is the first hug I have received in over three years!”
Brad’s friends always tease him that his motto must be, “If it moves, hug it!” We are well aware of the cautions and guidelines given for personal and professional interactions. We understand the concern for appropriateness. Still, many young people, large and small, have clung to Brad and hugged him until he could hardly breathe. He has seen teenagers wait in lines because they were hungering for the acknowledgment and acceptance that come with a simple hug. He has held teenagers like little children and rocked them back and forth in his arms as they have sobbed on his shoulders. Jerrick has experienced times when no words needed to be said because of the feelings expressed through a simple hug to a discouraged family member or struggling friend. He has seen firsthand how a hug can communicate gratitude to a helpful relative, love to a saddened adult, and comfort to an injured child. There is a need to respect personal space, but sometimes there are more important needs that must also be met.
After receiving a much-needed hug from Brad, one young man wrote: “Except for once with my father, I had never hugged a man before—not even my brothers. Thank you. That hug filled me with a glow that lasted through several days.” A girl wrote, “I had never had a hug from anyone in my entire life. I’ve wanted one. Oh, how I’ve longed for one, but I’m sorry because when I hugged you I didn’t even know where to put my arms or anything. I’d never done that before—ever.”
These young people were starved for something that has absolutely nothing to do with passion or sex. They were starved for the validation and affirmation that come through touch. Remember, you aren’t making any sexual statements by giving a hug. You’re making a statement about human love and caring. In Scandinavia, the Norse word hugga means “to comfort, hold close, or console.” As we hug someone, including (and maybe especially) our teenagers, we can give them something they desperately need—comfort and a sense of belonging.
Another essential expression of love involves actually saying the words “I love you.” One girl wrote, “I believe my mom doesn’t love me because I have never heard ‘I love you’ come out of her mouth for sixteen years. I say, ‘I love you, Mom’ and she says, ‘I know.’ Is that normal?”
Jerrick comes from a large family, but while he and his siblings were growing up, his parents made sure they told each child that they loved him or her individually. In addition, they knew that each child responded to affection in different ways. Jerrick’s sisters loved it when their parents spent time reading them bedtime stories, so they would. Jerrick, on the other hand, would rather read his own stories. He liked it when his parents supported him by attending his sporting events, like volleyball and basketball games. To show their love, Jerrick’s parents took time to come support him at his games and tournaments.
Reading stories and attending sporting events was how Jerrick’s parents communicated their love to each child individually, but they also provided times when they could say the words “I love you.” Jerrick’s parents made sure they told their children they loved them and gave them hugs and kisses goodnight—even if Jerrick and some of his brothers thought they were too cool for that. Looking back, Jerrick treasures those memories because the words “I love you” gave additional power to his parents’ actions of love.
Mother Teresa, a woman respected around the world for her work with the poor of Calcutta, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. During her acceptance lecture, she said, “I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there.”i We can’t think of a better place to start.
I love you. I’m proud of you. I’ve missed you. I’m lucky to have you.” Such words are more important than we realize and will bring us that much closer to open communication with our teenagers.
Trust is also important in communication. One parent asked, “How can I trust my teen? He is totally untrustworthy.” The truth of the matter is, we don’t have a choice. We can’t follow children around the rest of their lives. Even as adults, are we always trustworthy? Perhaps we should focus on our children’s potential and not on their current problems. Our children need messages of trust from us. We must find ways to allow them enough freedom to grow and enough boundaries to provide safety and security.
Trusting relationships can be established by keeping confidences. During the weekends while Jerrick was still in high school, he and his parents would stay up late and discuss pretty much anything from sports to politics. Often, those conversations would turn personal as Jerrick shared with his parents his struggles with low self-esteem, classes at school, and peer pressure. Never did his parents share those personal conversations with others—including Jerrick’s own siblings. Because of the confidence Jerrick had in his parents’ ability to keep his secrets, he trusted them more and confided in them continually.
Another way to gain trust is to compliment young people. Too often, by being overly critical or sarcastic with comments like “This kitchen still looks dirty,” “Are you ever going to do better than a B?” or “That’ll be the day,” parents take the clumsy position of blocking the very communication doors we want our children to enter. Children may put up with put-downs, but no one appreciates insults. They may laugh and play along, but deep down, it hurts. Children remember and replay hurtful comments to themselves for years. On the other hand, positive compliments can create open lines of communication.
Jerrick remembers an English teacher he had in high school—Mr. Parker—who was excellent at giving positive compliments. Every paper that Jerrick wrote in that class was meticulously looked over, but along with critiques, there were plenty of compliments. Although comments on the paper might say something like “Consider revising your word order,” or “Watch your subject-verb agreement,” they also lavished praise: “I love the alliteration here,” “Great word choice,” and “Excellent transition sentence.” Because of those sincere compliments, Jerrick felt like he could trust his teacher and often went to him for advice about writing and about life.
Young people appreciate it when we notice nice things about them and mention them with sincerity. Superlatives like “greatest,” “smartest,” and “best” may run a little ahead of reality, but remember, compliments expressed are often the seedbed of dreams fulfilled. Let us speak the language of possibility and hope.
We destroy trust when we are rude or cynical. Despite what the writers of comedy shows would have us believe, cutting remarks are not humorous or witty so much as they are hurtful and mean. When we criticize any person, we not only alienate that one person but also send a signal to other people that someday they will be next. Kind words offer safety and security in a teenager’s fearful world.
As a teenager, Brad was self-conscious about how he came across when speaking to groups. On one particular occasion, he was called on with no prior warning to speak in front of a large group. After it was over, he was sure he had made a total idiot of himself. Then a note was passed down the aisle where he was sitting. He thought it was going to be from some of the other teenagers saying how stupid he sounded. Instead, it was from Mr. Allen, one of his teachers. The note said, “Good job. I’m sure proud of you.” Mr. Allen’s words couldn’t have been more needed. They lifted Brad up more than Mr. Allen will ever know. Brad kept that note in his wallet until it became dog-eared.
One junior high school teacher learned through many years of experience the value of giving his students compliments. Each year, he noticed students in his classes who came from very difficult family situations—some were homeless, orphaned, or from abusive backgrounds. This teacher always complimented his students when they did well, but he put forth extra effort to praise those students who needed extra support. He noticed that often those students would start out class either very shy or very disruptive. Although he still gave appropriate consequences for bad behavior, the compliments he gave those students eventually created a feeling of trust between the students and teacher.
He remembers one time when a student of his who was normally very attentive fell asleep during class. The teacher didn’t embarrass her or call attention to it. After class, he approached the student one-on-one and asked her why she was so tired.
She said, “My dad didn’t get home until late last night, so I had to take care of my siblings.” The rest of their conversation revealed that the girl’s mom had left the family during the summer, and this teacher was able to help direct the child toward some counseling services that she desperately needed.
“If I hadn’t created that relationship of trust with my student earlier with some simple compliments,” he said, “I seriously doubt that she would have opened up to me like that. If I had teased or humiliated her for falling asleep, she would never have shared her problems with such honesty.”
Showing respect for young people allows for open communication. In one instance, a woman and her husband were approached by a community leader and asked if, since they had a spacious home, they would mind hosting a lunch for the guest speaker, a famous author, coming to a large conference. They gladly agreed.
This woman explained how she and her husband planned the menu, cleaned the entire house, and set out their best china. After all, this famous author was coming to visit their home, and they wanted to show proper respect.
On the morning of the anticipated conference, they were putting the final touches on everything. Their teenage son came downstairs for breakfast. He ate some cereal and then, knowing it was a special day, cleaned up after himself. He even rinsed the bowl—but left it in the sink.
This woman said, “When I went to the kitchen and saw that bowl in the sink, I exploded. I yelled at my son and gave him a talking-to he would not soon forget.” The bowl was hidden. The family left to attend the conference.
Through the whole meeting, the mother kept looking over at her son sitting there several seats away. She knew she had overreacted, and she felt guilty. She said, “I realized that while trying so hard to show respect to the speaker who would visit my home later that day, I had failed to show respect for the boy who lives there every day. Didn’t my son deserve the same respect I was extending to this other person?”
She reached across her younger children, tapped her son on his shoulder, and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
The quality of our communication with our children will improve in direct proportion to the amount of respect we show them when we talk together. One of the most obvious ways to show respect is by listening. In fact, we should usually do quite a bit more listening than talking.
Effective listening requires time, intent, and a temporary suspending of judgments and advice. When teenagers are upset or discouraged, they don’t need solutions to problems so much as they need understanding sounding boards. Right answers are usually obvious.
Maybe you’re thinking, So am I supposed to just sit there with my mouth shut? The answer is yes. Silence can be a potent sign of acceptance and respect. Face the teenager, keep eye contact, and nod occasionally to show interest. But stay quiet and you’ll be amazed at the quality and quantity of comments you are able to draw out.
Sometimes another effective listening response is to paraphrase in our own words the messages we hear. This shows we comprehend what the teenager means. We can also say such things as “I see” and “I understand”—comments that show we are relating to what the teenager feels.
If a famous speaker and author came to our home, would we watch TV or fold clothes while he or she was trying to speak to us? Would we interrupt or correct his or her grammar? Showing proper respect for teenagers will improve our communication and relationship with them.
Eventually, teenage walls will come tumbling down. One teacher came to school to find his students had decorated his office. For him, it was better than a raise. One father found a card from his son left on his pillow, a gift that, for him, was priceless. Days after Jerrick taught a class as a substitute teacher, one of the students recognized him and approached him to let him know how much he appreciated his teaching style. Who thanks a substitute teacher? Jerrick was thrilled. Every parent can have similar experiences.
Since hedgehogs are nocturnal, they rely on smell rather than sight to distinguish friend from foe. Wearing gloves blocks your distinct smell, but taking the gloves off allows the hedgehog to recognize you. Likewise, when we, as parents, “take the gloves off” and show teenagers—truly and genuinely—that we love them, trust them, and respect them, teenagers will recognize and respond to that openness and sincerity. Those three keys, “I love you,” “I trust you,” and “I respect you,” will allow for effective communication with teenagers if we use them often. The walls will come tumbling down. If we want love, trust, and respect from teenagers, we must give these things to teenagers first, and then give them again and again. It may not happen right away, but with constant effort, we can gain the love, trust, and respect of our teenagers.
1. Mother Teresa, “Nobel Lecture,” 11 December 1979, from nobelprize.org.
This article is an excerpt from Brad Wilcox and Jerrick Robbins' How to Hug a Hedgehog.