Teens are legendarily somewhat reluctant to engage in activities with anyone except their immediate peers, so the question as to how to get them interacting with you in a meaningful way may seem like a tough one. Parents tend to despair at trying to talk to the child who, only a very few years before, seemed to tell them everything. That’s the cliché, at least. I’m not convinced that teens are always that difficult to communicate with. I suspect the challenge is in being able to do it at their own pace, on their own terms. This interested me right at the start of my time working with kids and so I’ve devised a number of what I call ‘exercises’ that have been road tested over the years and are usually successful when used with teens. The idea is to engage their imaginations which will, in turn, get them thinking and communicating at a meaningful level.
That sounds like a large claim, and it’s not easy to explain it, so instead I’ll show you how it can work. Let’s start with this exercise. Just about any magazine or newspaper these days has pictures of living rooms, furniture and so on. Open one up and ask your teen what he or she likes or might like in terms of his or her bedroom or den. Then ask what the child would like to have as a room or even an entire house, if money were no object. Notice the italics. Most teens are keenly aware of what they want but can’t have yet, so we need to free them from actual constraints, just for the moment. You can start this exercise by talking (you’ll be doing the listening, for the most part) and then you can suggest drawing the plan of the room or the house, or making a collage. A drawing is usually the best way forward, as people tend to let their imaginations go free when they draw in this sketch-like way.
Often teens will spend a huge amount of time designing and explaining the perfect house that they hope one day to have. Sometimes they’ll spend a couple of days, even, constructing drawings. And you can encourage them to write down their thoughts, too. These days many computers have sophisticated graphics programs that teens may know in detail, so rule out no possibilities.
If you’re working with your teen at the kitchen table, say, you can create a drawing as well. As you work remember to include such things as doors and windows, a garden or trees, some sense of how one gets to the front door, and even what time of day and time of year it might be. And include some mention of water.
This exercise is an invitation into a fantasy world that also will allow the teen to communicate important facts about herself in a symbolic way – facts that she would like understood. As a parent it’s not up to you to look at the diagram the child produces and try and tell her who she is. That may succeed only in alienating her. It’s up to you to accept the communication and attempt to learn from it. Any time we draw pictures of houses or homes we would like to live in we are, in fact, generating a diagram of our own minds – what we need, who we want around us, and how close we want others to be.
So, what do you look for in the completed drawing? First of all, how much space on the page did your child use for the picture? Sometimes a small picture jammed into a corner indicates a child who does not feel she can take up much space in the real world. Similarly, was the picture of the inside of the building, or of the building in its grounds, or was it just of a room? Introverting and private children may prefer to draw their own private space only, while extroverting children may draw huge estates with rolling hills and barns of horses. Does the picture include other people? Are these the present family, or a future family, “when I’m married,” and if so what does this look like? Often, happy children will draw future families that are very like their own, while more cautious children may draw just their own family. Other children choose to draw just themselves, in charge at last of their own space.
None of these responses is better or worse than any other, but if you are paying attention they will tell you what the teen needs. Does she long for her own quiet space? If so, you may want to try and honor that in her present home. It’s not always bad news if a child wants a quiet space away from the family. Sometimes people will produce a picture in which there are separate rooms or even separate buildings for different hobbies. A stable for the horses, a garage for the car and a workshop, an art room, a library. Few of us can afford to provide something like that, but we don’t have to, because what the individual is communicating in each case is that these are important aspects of her being that may not yet be fully incorporated into her life. This is the divided ego, which is trying to balance all these claims while still being part of a family. That’s why children of all ages love club-houses of various sorts where they can live out that specific aspect of the self, for a while. The size of these special areas may tell you how important these things are for the teen, and the distance they are from the bedroom or the main house tells you how vital they feel. The person who describes a small bedroom just next to the electronics laboratory is making a different statement from the person who wants a large bedroom with a widescreen TV and a Jacuzzi. The first is interested in ideas and intellectual exploration, perhaps; the second is interested in physical comforts and may be much more comfortable in her skin.
If you have more than one teen working at this at the same time it can be most helpful, as they’ll all want slightly different things and they’ll all notice what the others want or don’t want. Perhaps they’ll even argue.
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