‘Real’ conversations with adolescents begin with listening
Emily KlineThe School of Hard Talks

‘Real’ conversations with adolescents begin with listening

Clinical psychologist Emily Kline returns to Pittsburgh with message

Emily Kline. Photo courtesy of Emily Kline
Emily Kline. Photo courtesy of Emily Kline

A Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and former Pittsburgher is returning home to offer advice on dealing with adolescents.

Boston-based Emily Kline’s April 4 talk with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures will reference her soon-to-be-published book, “The School of Hard Talks: How to Have Real Conversations with Your(Almost Grown) Kids,” and give listeners a chance to take a deeper dive into “the micro.”

Through working with adolescents and supervising other clinical psychologists at Boston University School of Medicine, Kline, 39, said she’s learned that verbal cues and deliberate tactics can determine whether a conversation with adolescents goes “really well or awry.”

So much of a successful outcome is based on listening, she said: “When you listen, they listen.”

If a child — or anyone — expresses concern or frustration, there’s an inclination to offer advice, try to fix the problem or even minimize the issue raised, Kline said. As opposed to attempting to correct the wrong, or utilize one’s “righting reflex,” a better approach is to listen and avoid giving feedback.

“Mastering your righting reflex requires you to accept the reality that your ability to command other people is limited,” Kline wrote in her book.

This can be difficult to accept, she told the Chronicle. While parents often feel responsible for guiding and dictating their children’s choices, they need to understand the limited role they actually play.

“Parents cannot control how their kids turn out,” she wrote. “Whether kids wind up earning a lot of money, developing depression or summiting Mount Everest doesn’t reflect much on the competence of their caregiver. The most important work of parenting an adolescent is not controlling your child’s path, but rather creating a relationship of trust and mutual respect.”

Part of the problem parents face when dealing with adolescents, Kline noted, is the desire to be experts.

“I think we do our best as adults when we own up to the fact that we don't know everything,” she said. “What I tell a lot of parents is, ‘Believe it or not, your teenager already knows that you don't know everything. That is not going to be a shock to them. They knew that way before you did.’”

Whether it’s technology, social media or even drugs, “your kid might know a lot more about this than you,” she said.

Parents can create better relationships with their children by adopting humility and acknowledging insufficient understanding.

“Rather than going in and saying, ‘I need to talk to you about blank, did you know blank,’ and having a lot of facts and opinions prepared to share, go in with curiosity and say, ‘I'm hearing a lot about whatever it is — whether it’s TikTok or THC concentrates. Just really start the conversation with curiosity and with asking your kid to share expertise,” she said.

There will be parents who worry about putting that much pressure on their children. For these parents, an alternative strategy, Kline said, could include saying, “What do your friends say about that — because kids might not want to admit they know anything — or what’s the attitude about that in your friend group?”

Kline, who previously worked at Jewish Residential Services in Squirrel Hill and in psychiatry research at the University of Pittsburgh, said her talk at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall isn’t just a chance for attendees to learn new communicative strategies. The free talk, which is available in person and online, also represents a personally gratifying experience.

“My actual friends from high school and my parents are going to be there,” she said. “To share the work I've been doing as an adult — in my career that is really about adolescents — with the most important people from my adolescence couldn’t be cooler.”

Kline’s talk is scheduled for April 4 at 6 p.m. Registration is available at pittsburghlectures.org/lectures/emily-kline/. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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