Dialogue with a Teenager

One day when my son was around 13 years old, he did what had become all too customary by that age: push the limits with me. I can’t recall what the issue was—there were so many during those years—but I do recall he wanted to do something I didn’t believe he was old enough to do. And at age 13, he could really push hard. He was bright, articulate, and determined. It probably went something like this:

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. You’re too young. There’ll be time for that when you’re older.”

“But WHY? You’re not FAIR! “

He was angry. I was getting angry too. Then something hit me: I’m trained! I teach couples every day how to use the Imago Intentional Dialogue. Ah, I knew what to do. I began to mirror him.

“So what you’re saying is you do believe you’re old enough to do this and you think I’m being unfair!”

“YES!” he screamed.

“Is there more?” I asked with deliberate calm.

“YES! And you think I’m still a little kid. You don’t realize that I’m growing up. You think you can stop me from growing up!”

“So what I hear you saying is that I think you’re still a little kid, I don’t realizing you are growing up, and you even think I want to stop you from growing up. Is that right?”

“Yes,” he replied, a bit calmer.

“Is there more?”

“YES! All my friends get to do t it. You only talk to the strict parents.”

I mirrored him again. “So you’re saying all your friends get to do this and you think I only talk to the strict parents. Did I get it?”

“Yes,” calmer still.

“Is there more?”

So I listened and mirrored him til he told me there was no more. Then I said: “I get what you’re saying. You make sense to me. And I can imagine you feel very angry.”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel that I heard you?”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to listen to me now?”

“Okay, I guess,” he replied reluctantly.

I expressed my point of view, pausing after each sentence or two to ask him to tell me what he heard me saying. After I got it all out, I asked him if what I said made sense. It did. Then I asked him what he imagined I was feeling.

“Oh, you’re just worried about me because you love me,” he replied.

I felt tears in my eyes. Thus ended that day’s battle. We both had calmed down, we both felt heard. I did not change my limit.

Pretty good, right? It gets even better. A few days later, or I should say nights because it was after 11 pm. I was practically brain dead. He was wide awake. I was headed to bed as we were scheduled to get up early the next day to drive to Greenville with a group to help repair houses damaged by the floods from Hurricane Floyd. He had agreed to go but was now having second thoughts. Getting up early on a Saturday morning to do something in a group with Mom was fast losing its appeal. “Mom, Mom, come here, let’s do that mirroring thing!” he hollered.

In case you’re wondering, we did go on the service trip. Listening and mirroring him did not mean I had to allow him to abandon a commitment at the last moment. But he went a bit more willingly.

We used the dialogue process from time to time as needed during the next few years, usually at my initiation and with some initial grumbling on his part. But he did it and it helped. It helped a lot. It became one of my main strategies for surviving his adolescence. Along with a few key phrases such as “I’ll have to think about it” and “Because I said so IS enough of a reason!”

But the story gets even better. Fast forward a few years to the summer after his freshman year at college. He had had two semesters in a dorm with no parents and felt pretty grown up. He was living back at home, however, and I felt there were still some rules. Minimal rules: if you decide at 3 am to spend the night elsewhere, I expect to find a message on my cell phone to that effect when I wake up the next morning so I won’t worry you are dead in a ditch. I turned my cell phone off at night so he wouldn’t risk waking me up with a late call. Somehow he found it hard to remember to do this. Or to comply with the rule about cleaning up the kitchen after himself. We had a lot of conflict. It peaked on July 4th when he had a few friends in the front yard around a small fire pit way past when I went to bed. One decided to come inside to use the bathroom around 3 am and scream from inside the living room to her friends outside. This woke me up. I was not happy. I was angry. It took me til 5 am to calm myself and go back to sleep. I was thinking maybe he should go live the rest of the summer with his father. Or maybe be sold into slavery. Yes, we had a lot of conflict.

During one of these conflicts, as we sat across the kitchen table from each other, he spoke very emphatically: “Mom, I want you to mirror that! I want to make sure you heard me!”

Ah, he had gotten it! I thought, Surely this skill will help him in his future relationships.
It all started with me mirroring him in the midst of an argument. I did not think he would respond favorably had I suggested I teach him the intentional dialogue. I imagine he would have said something like, “Get away from me with that therapy stuff!” Dialogue with a teenager probably comes under the category of dialogue with an unwilling partner. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to just start mirroring him. I submit that if a mother and a 13 year old boy can learn to dialogue, anyone can. Try it. It really works.

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