“Oh Erin,” she said, pouring more wine into my glass. “Never, ever, ever offer unsolicited advice”. She gave me a look of pity, chagrined and frustrated that I was so dense. “It’s literally the best way to shut down a conversation before it even starts”.
Allie, my college bestie, is the greatest mother I know. Her three kids are so smart, talented and charming; she is my definitive go-to for parenting advice. I’m lamenting the fact that Izzie hasn’t been initiating conversations as of late. She’s quiet; she gets in the car after school, grabs my phone to switch my music to “something better” then sings along until we pull in the driveway. All questions are answered with a grunt or an “I guess”. Sometimes I share things that happened to me in middle school, generally met with an eye roll and a pitying look that tells me I know exactly zero things about what middle school today is like. At home, she slams the car door, trudges up the stairs and then disappears into her room, usually slamming that door as well.
“What am I doing wrong?” I wail.
“Uh, offering advice. Never give unsolicited advice. Unless they specifically ask for it, it will be summarily rejected,” Allie said, sipping her wine.
“But I can fix it because I’ve been there! In my scenario, Matilda was named Susan and Savannah was Belinda, but it’s basically the identical story. I am a cautionary tale. She could learn from my mistakes and sail through middle school”.
“Are you drunk? Firstly, no one sails through middle school. They aren’t supposed to. They are supposed to feel confused and awkward and misunderstood. It’s a rite of passage. You aren’t upset that she isn’t talking to you. You’re upset that she isn’t listening to you”.
I bristle, knowing she’s right but still miffed at the idea that no one wants my advice.
“There is a single rule when talking to a teenage girl. Just use the phrase what I hear you saying is…and then repeat exactly what she says back to her. I learned it from a counselor. It’s called The Speaker Listener Technique. It’s for conflict resolution, but I figure parenting a teen is basically a first class seat on the Struggle Bus anyway, so there you go”.
I looked it up later. The Speaker Listener technique helps you talk in a way that is both clear (so you truly understand what is being said) and safe (so that no one fears the conversation will erode into an argument).
A few days later, she slammed the car door and threw her books in the back seat, face red and eyes teary. “Maisy has been hanging out in the bathroom between classes with some mean girls and…(pause for dramatic effect) vaping! You know, like actual nicotine! And so I don’t even know what to do with that”! I kept my eyes forward, my hands on ten and two. I took a deep breath. In a flash, several responses went through my mind.
Your sweet friend Maisy is vaping? Does her mom know?
Is this why you didn’t want to go to Maisy’s sleepover last weekend?
You know nicotine is really addictive, right? I’ll kill you if I ever catch you vaping!
Who are these other girls? They sound like trouble.
Have you been vaping too? Nothing you tell me will shock me, as long as you’re honest.
I said none of these things. I channeled my inner Allie and said, “Soooo…..what I hear you saying is that Maisy is vaping with some other girls and you don’t even know what to do with that”.
A moment later, she said, “Exactly”. She sighed as if an emotional valve had been released.
Tentatively, I suggested she tell me more. “Well, Maisy is just totally different these days. Her new friends are all being mean to me because I don’t hang out with her anymore”.
“So, Maisy is acting different and her new friends are mean to you”?
“Right. Thanks mom. I knew you would understand. Oh my gosh, this is my jam!” She turned up Taylor Swift and started singing, smiling like she was pleased to put the issue to bed.
What. In. The. Actual. Hell. Just. Happened?
I used the technique many times over the next few weeks and it worked every single time. A few times, toward the end of the conversation, she even asked for my actual advice and I would give her a calm, thoughtful response. But otherwise, I did nothing but let her speak and parrot her words back to her. By simply listening, I completely validated her thoughts and feelings. I realize that I had not been really listening to her, but instead waiting to talk, waiting for her to pause so I could jump in and judge the situation, offer advice, fix her problem. Her voice deserves to be heard, amplified. How else will she ever find her true voice in this world? I can be the audience simply by listening with compassion. It’s a relief for both of us.