Does this metaphor even work?

As you may remember, I’ve been writing my book this week. With my nose stuck deep into my computer keyboard for hours every day, I have found myself having fun with metaphors. And then suddenly I worried that I’m the only one who has any idea what I’m even saying. So I’d love for you to play a game with me: Does this metaphor even work?


The only way your teenager will stop start listening to you is if you stop talking.

There are a couple of common down-falls that parents make around this point. Some parents just get discouraged from lack of feedback. Other parents get overzealous and talk louder and longer, hoping that will help. Really, neither of these are good approaches. In order to fully maximize the influence your words and opinions have with your teenager, you need to minimize them.

Imagine a point you wish to make with your teenager as a balloon, the kind you find filled with helium at birthday parties. This is the point you want to make with your teenager. Imagine filling it up with helium  until and watching it bobs around nicely on the ceiling. You’re rather proud of your balloon-point. You think it is succinct and wise.

Now imagine the same event from the perspective of a teenager. Your parent has brought in this huge hot air balloon, and is rapidly blowing it up. It fills the entire room, and you’re pushed into your chair, and your chair is pushed up against the wall. The enormity of your parent’s balloon has overwhelmed you, and you’re not fully able to either grasp all of it or respond to something so enormous.

This illustrates the difference in perspective that I often see in teenagers and their parents about the same conversation. As a parent, you have to use your words and your thoughts very, very sparingly. Each single sentence that you say burrows down inside your teenager and wiggles around, bumping up against your teenager’s private thoughts and feelings. Use that power wisely and you fill find it has great effect.


And then, of course, regardless of whether it works, is it useful?

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Kelly, That’s a funny cartoon you linked to, but I’m not sure I fully understand how it applies. Can you elaborate a bit? Karen

  2. The only way your teenager will stop listening to you is if you stop talking.

    I guess I’d restate this: the only way your teenager will START listening to you is if you stop talking.

    (Based on 25 years of working with middle school kids as a teacher and counselor)

  3. I like this re-state, Ms. Kitty, and I’ve edited the post to show it. But here’s my dilemma: there are lots of parents who just completely dis-connect from their teenagers because the kids aren’t talking, but the kids thought the relationship was just fine until the parents disengaged. Then the kids feel abandoned. So how do I simultaneously encourage parents to (1) not talk too much while (2) remaining engaged. It’s a narrow rope to walk, and most parents without your years of experience with the age group find it very, very difficult.

  4. I see what you’re saying, Karen. It makes sense. Maybe this: the only way your teenager will start talking is if you start listening.

    One of the things I learned while counseling middle school kids was to sit side by side with them, rather than across a table or face to face. This worked well particularly with boys. I think the eye contact is often threatening to adolescents, like a challenge to their growing autonomy. Sometimes if I asked an open-ended question with my eyes lowered or to the side, it helped the flow of words from the teen, especially if it was a difficult subject.

    I think a kid has a hard time starting to talk about something tricky without some help. I used to advise parents to take their kid on a longish car trip (harder now with gas prices but still possible and worthwhile) and keep their ears open. It’s easy for kids to tune out with iPods, etc., but parents can ask them to not use music as an out. And the parent can start by offering an opinion of their own—an opinion not related to anything the teen (or her friends) has done. A conversation that goes beyond chitchat is a good thing for any person to engage in, and teens are no exception.

    I suspect you know all this! Sorry to carry on.

  5. I like the balloon metaphor a lot, especially because so much of what adults say is “hot air.” I would edit it like this, however, to make the connection sooner: imagine a point you wish to make with your teenager as a balloon. Imagine filling it with helium until it eventually bobs nicely around on the ceiling. You’re rather proud of your balloon-point. You think it is succinct and wise.

  6. Thank you, Ms. Kitty and Margaret. Ms. Kitty: Yes, I have a whole chapter of my book dedicated to talking about finding something else to do while you have heavy conversations with teenagers!

  7. Again Karen, a very interesting topic. I have always told my kids, alot of the time it’s not what you say but how you say it. The tone of voice and facial expressions convey more than the words sometimes. If you talk judgementally or too forcefully, you end up expressing an opinion and putting the other person or child on the defensive. Another point I try to remember is I think most kids hate “topic driven” conversations. Such as ok I think we need to talk about sex, or we need to talk about drinking. The better alternative is to find a real life moment where the subject can be brought up and then to ask open ended questions. Such as, oh Jane is pregnant, how do feel about that? How can you prevent that from happening to you? etc etc. Movies and tv shows can often times be the stimulus for good conversations too. Sorry for rambling just my 2 cents.

  8. Metaphors are the manatees of communicaton. Everybody loves them, but most have scars on their backs from speedboats.

  9. That’s really interesting, Robert, thank you for sharing! BTW, were you aware that 73% of all statistics are made up on the spot?

    Thanks for sharing, Barb! Good suggestions, all of them.

  10. Funny, I always thought it was 93%?

    I think that is a good metaphor though, I do think lots of parents tend to forget what seems like a small point is really a big deal to their kids. It is all a matter of perspective.

  11. Karen, I think JustAnotherTeen is right; its 93% of statistics that are made up on the spot. You are dead spot on so much of the time, I’m really surprised you would get this one wrong! (or was that a typo?????)

    I think the balloon metaphor is good. What’s important is the fact that you really hammer home that parents need to be very mindful of their words, and don’t use them too much.

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