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Talking to Teens (and Getting a Reply)

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: advice about talking to teenagers.

RS: Our friend Ali the English teacher in Iran told us about a book called "Raising Children with Character."

AA: He suggested we talk to the author, Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist in Pennsylvania. So we took his advice.

RS: "Now how is it different, the interaction between two teenagers and the teenager and his or her parents?

ELIZABETH BERGER: "I think what makes it different is not the words, per se, but that teenagers are extremely sensitive to feeling that they have a hostile audience or a judgmental audience. And parents often are conveying that they're exasperated, and that has a tendency to shut down communication from kids who are really craving the parents' good graces as much as they may not seem to be."

AA: "Now I know expressions like, for a parent to begin a sentence with, 'What I'm hearing is' and 'What I'm feeling is,' things like that -- you see that in the popular literature sometimes -- I mean that, to me personally, that kind of gives me the creeps [feel uneasy]. But, on the other hand, are those the sorts of ways to broach a conversation with a teenager? I mean, what advice do you give?"

ELIZABETH BERGER: "I have to say I share your 'creeps' there, because it's a little too politically correct or psychobabble -- therap-ese. I think that parents need to be honest with themselves first about recognizing that often they want to control and badger and nag and preach at and scold and sort of beat the kid into line. And in order to have a respectful conversation you have to lay that aside."

RS: "So what's the best approach?"

ELIZABETH BERGER: "I think the best approach is to be a good listener."

RS: "So how do you start a conversation?"

AA: "Yeah, you can't listen till they actually are saying something! [laughter]"

ELIZABETH BERGER: "Well, first maybe you have to have a physical setup in which there are expectations on both sides that they are going to be communicating with one another. Car rides are good places for this in our automobile-dominated society, oftentimes the one place that people really have a chance for an intimate exchange."

RS: "Also, for me what works is right before bed, I don't know why -- or right after exercise or sports. There seems to be a little bit of ... "

ELIZABETH BERGER: "I think the bed thing is very telling because little children, especially, become very inspired and chatty at bedtime. It's often transparent that they don't want the grownup to go. They're lonely. You're all alone in that bed."

AA: "What about for older kids, for teenagers?

ELIZABETH BERGER: "Well, even there, it's an opportunity to say, 'Well, what's going on with you, catch me up, what is going through your mind lately?' You know, to put it in a neutral way, in a curious way, in an appreciative spirit works better, of course, with anyone."

AA: "Now how should you not approach a conversation with, let's say, a 14-year-old?"

ELIZABETH BERGER: "Well, I think American parents are unfortunately highly brainwashed by the idiom of the personnel department, the head nurse, the math teacher. These are great approaches for keeping a disorganized group together. Right? The sort of military, you know, 'we got a task, we're going to do the task and you got to fly right because we're organized around a task.' You can't teach math class without that premise, or have everybody sing on key in a glee club or whatever the group activity is. But intimate relationships are not like that.

"Parents sometimes feel fearful of their teenager, so they hang on to what they learned when they got their M.B.A. They hang on to a whole administrative set of rules and consequences. But a child is not a corporation. It just does not work that way."

RS: Child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger is author of the book "Raising Children With Character: Parents, Trust, and the Development of Personal Integrity."

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. You can find our segments on American English, dating back to 1998, on our Web site, And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.