“As parents (and educators), our need is to be needed. As teenagers, their need is not to need us. This conflict is real; we experience it daily as we help those we love become independent of us.” – Dr Him Ginott 1969.


Is this the root of much that is unwell in our relating with teens? Their every fibre is straining towards independence (front door key, car, credit card) and away from anything that resembles childhood dependence (for these read: parents and educators).

I picked up an old favourite of mine again recently; “How to talk so teens will listen and to listen so teens will talk.” It’s a catchy title, but a profound one. The book begins with the comforting reassurance that it is never too late to work at improving a relationship with a child.

It goes on to encourage us to create the sort of climate in our homes (and classes) where teens feel free to express themselves. The author suggests that that will trigger a greater willingness to listen to our feelings, consider our adult perspective and accept our restraints. Sounds good!

Let’s try and unwrap that a little. We are normally so determined to fix things for our teens that we forget that there is a bigger goal. We must teach them how to fix things for themselves. The next time you take up arms in defence of your teen, ensure that you have empowered them in the process, that they have learnt new “fixing” skills.

In our desire to “fix” we are occasionally guilty of dismissing feelings, criticising judgement and of giving unasked for advice. “It’s not nearly as bad as you’re suggesting … you were totally wrong to have …. what you should have done was …” Doesn’t that response just throw up the shutters?

We need to make the effort to explain our reasons, with the instruction. “There are only enough for one each,” is surely preferable to, “put that down.”

Gruff accusation usually produces defensiveness. The teen is far more likely to pick up on your aggression and lose your message, which, as we all know, is extremely difficult to resolve.

 If threats and/or aggression are our weapon of choice, we end up with either sullen compliance or defiance. I actually believe the sullen compliance to be the more dangerous. So  much of the difficulty I experience working with teens is related to passive aggressive behaviour. The teen acts out in unrelated ways because some or other emotional need is not  being satisfied.

These teens deliberately underachieve, drop out of what they do well, become tardy etc. etc.

 Some of the book’s advice I particularly enjoyed:

“Teenagers tune out to long lectures: a short reminder, ‘your essay book,’ is more likely to be co-operated with. “Substitute humour for criticism: it changes the mood and makes your teen more receptive.” “The written word can sometimes persuade where the spoken word cannot.” Write your teen a letter which they can reflect on, out of the heat of the moment. “Do the unexpected: Put your hands over your ears, make a motion of turning the volume down, place palms together and bow in a gesture of gratitude.”

I thought their list of what parents and educators should not say was excellent:

Don’t say, ‘You can tell me everything,’ and then freak out and lecture them when they do.

Don’t say things like, ‘Are you still on the phone?’ when you can see that they are.

If you want your teen to tell you the truth, don’t ground them for every small thing when they do tell the truth!

Don’t always criticise and correct, or they will grow up to resent authority (like a friend of mine, who can’t hold down a job, because he is always clashing with management).

There is much more advice in this book, which is a good investment. I’m personally convinced that what we do before the conflict occurs, is far more powerful and considerably less traumatic, than our attempts to remedy afterwards.

 Written by Gavin Fish, Headmaster of Fish Hoek High School