The Power of Why
[Note: This article focuses on teenagers, but the techniques work equally well with spouses, friends, family members, co-workers, employees and bosses. So if you want to co-create a healthier relationship with any of these people in your life, then read on.]
By Dr. Janet Joyce
“Don’t back your car into your parking space,” read the sign on the wall. I was 17 years old and living in a condominium complex. Naturally, having read the sign, I really wanted to back into my parking space. So I did. Repeatedly.
“Why,” I thought? Why shouldn’t I back into the space? It made no sense to me. It seemed like a stupid rule just to control people. So I wasn’t about to follow it.
It wasn’t until many months later, while talking to a fellow condo-dweller that it came up in the conversation. “Isn’t that a stupid rule?” I said with indignation.
“Well, not really,” came the unexpected response. “You see, if people back in to their parking spaces, then when they start up their cars the exhaust fumes can go directly into someone’s living room.”
“Oh.” I was startled into a realization that has stayed with from that moment on. And I never backed my car into one of those parking spaces again.
Because the formerly arbitrary rule now had a rational reason; a reason that made sense and that I could respect. It wasn’t about controlling my behavior. It wasn’t even about me at all as it turned out. It was about the residents who happened to have first floor units that had windows facing the parking lot.
Suddenly my defiance turned into empathy. And that is the key.
Why You Butt Heads With Your Teen
Teenagers are undertaking an important life-altering spurt of growth and development during these few but crucial years. At this phase in their lives they are learning their own minds, but they still need the help guidance and insight from trusted adults to help them make the jump from teen to adult thought processing.
Why do so many parent/teen interactions seem to end up in conflict or dispute?
Because the power of why has not been respected or properly utilized. Rather than a road block, it can actually become a technique to help you become closer.
How many times have you heard your teen say things like, “Why do I have to be home at midnight?” “Why should I clean up that mess? It isn’t mine.” “Why can’t I have the car tonight?” Why, why, why? This refrain is very familiar to any parent. It’s only the tune that has changed from the younger years to the teenage years.
Pretending and Remembering
Despite how they may sound coming from the voices of testy teens, these questions are very important because they provide your teenager with a framework for the behavior you’re trying to encourage. Once you understand this it become possible for you to respond to the questions differently than you may have before.
So forget about being angry with your teen for asking the question. Instead, try to put yourself in the same mind frame you were in when that same child was asking “Why does Grandpa walk so slow?” Pretend for a moment that your teen’s “why” question deserves just as much attention and is just as much of a real question as the “why” questions posed by your five year old.
You used to answer questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do hamsters have to die?” And if you think about it, those questions inspired you to respond in a very different way than when your teenager asks “Why do I have to clean my room? It’s my room.”
Take the time not just to answer the question but to think of this as an opportunity. Indeed, this is your chance to get to know the inner workings of your teenager’s mind, to really understand what’s going on inside his or her head.
Engage in a dialogue that includes real answers to the “why” questions and you will learn that your teen actually wants to be cooperative and engaged with you. You may even be surprised at how much you can learn from them.
What’s amazing is that many parents miss this chance to engage and cooperate with their child. Instead they think that the job of the teen is to cooperate with adults.
There is no more compelling time of life for the application of the Golden Rule than during the teen years. Why would your teenager want to cooperate with you if you don’t show them some cooperation in a co-creative exchange?
As adults we expect to be treated with respect. We have a very realistic expectation that when we ask questions or want to engage other adults in a process of give and take that we will be taken seriously. Your teenager is the same as you, except that they live in a world that routinely does not respect them, their life experiences, their contributions or their insights.
Time for a New Approach
So, here’s a new and radical approach to follow when you are asked “why” by your teen. (Note: Why questions are not only ones that begin with the word “why.” They can also begin with what, when, where, how or even can you, as in “Can you drive me to the mall?)
- Listen to the question with your full attention.
- Don’t respond immediately. Instead take a moment to really understand the meaning behind the question and think through your response so you say what you really want and not just the first thing that comes into your head.
- Ask your own questions too, especially if you need clarification (i.e. who else is going, how much homework do you have, or, are you willing to do it later).
- Respond as if you were answering the most important question your child could ever ask you. This lets them know you are taking them seriously and that you really care about their needs and feelings.
- Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Many times the real answer has to do with your own fears (for their safety, for example), or your own feelings. Your teenager will thank you for being “real.” Begin that sentence with, “My concern is….”
- Engage in a process of negotiation that involves your teen and respects their position. Don’t be too quick to dismiss their concerns or needs. You wouldn’t like it and neither do they.
- At the end, ask your teen if they feel that your response is reasonable, fair, workable or a good compromise. They will likely surprise you with their honesty, and you may even surprise yourself with how good it feels.
If this approach is new for you, give it some practice time. And remember that it is essential to include your teenager in the process. You don’t expect to come home after work and just tell your spouse what to do with their evening, do you? You ask questions, you engage, you cooperate, you flex, and you listen. Hopefully they do the same in return.
Remember that the core of this technique is about encouraging your teen to take responsibility for themselves, teaching them by example how to work together in a healthy relationship, and moving to a place where you both feel involved in a co-creative process in your evolving relationship.
Don’t be afraid to explain that you are trying something new. Invite your teen to participate with you in this kind of discovery. They really will love this new approach.
In my decades of work with teens the one thing I have consistently heard is that teenagers wish their parents would listen to them more. Think about this for a moment. They don’t say they wish they had more stuff, or that they wish their parents would just leave them alone. They want parents to listen and to engage. Even if this seems at odds with how they behave, it is the truth.
They want parents to listen and to engage them with openness, encouragement and respect.
Here’s your chance to do just that, while getting your teen to be your willing ally at the same time. And that’s how understanding the power of “why” can create positive interactions between you and your teenager during what can be challenging years and throughout the rest of your relationship as well.
What could be better than that?
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