Five Communication Tips in Relating to Teens

Simple Suggestions for a Healthy Relationship

Adolescence is the time in your child’s life where they are moving towards independence, creating themselves as an individual, their own identity, separate from you, different from you. It is called “individuation” or “identity formation” in the mental health field and is usually a time of development that is fraught with arguments and power-struggles. If you find yourself thinking that your child just doesn’t listen to you, if seemingly minor requests, turn into major arguments then chances are that you and your teen aren’t connecting. Teens often feel that we are talking “at” them and not “to” them. They want a different connection to you, but don’t know how to ask for it. Harvard University did a study on parent involvement releasing a 100 page document entitled, Raising Teens. They found that parents often interpret adolescent behavior as their child needing less involvement and more space. In truth, it is a different kind of involvement that they are seeking. Teens still look at their parents as their #1 role models and the person they would go to in times of difficulty. These simple tweaks in your communication style may make all the difference in creating and maintaining a positive relationship.

1. Ask for What You Want. Tone can make a huge difference. If you have a rule to not leave shoes by the front door perhaps you say, “Are those your shoes by the door?” vs. “Get your shoes right now, I have tripped over them again!” Or “When do you think you will have time to work on your project?” instead of “You can’t go out with your friends until your project is done.”Framing requests or expectations in the form of questions allows the teen to be involved in the decision making. Teens tend to interpret tone and facial expressions more intensely than adults – and take them more personally. And teens have their developing brains swimming in hormones that can alter those social interpretations. Brain research has also found that problem solving, risk assessment, and abstract thinking (all functions of the frontal lobe) are continuing to develop into their early 20’s. They have also found that teens often interpret fear, worry, or surprise as anger. So be sure to access your “calm parent” voice. Even if they are escalating, perhaps even screaming, you remain calm. You can always talk later when they have calmed down and are more rational. These escalated arguments just leave room for power-struggles and stalemates.

2. Avoid Power Struggles by Stating your Values. Before you give your child privileges or freedoms, let them know your expectations. For Instance, “It is important that we all drive safely. You may use the family car this weekend, only you need to be driving alone and have the car back by dark. You will need more practice driving before I feel safe enough with you driving at night.” And then follow-up when your child leaves the house with, “Remember our rule, safety first, when can I expect you home?” This gives them a chance to problem-solve and self-govern at the same time. Now, you can use “safety first” as a short cut to remind them of other rules. “Safety First” can work with driving, risky behaviors @ parties or with groups of friends, underage drinking… All of these lead to safety concerns and possibly undesired consequences. Other values can include hard work or effort, following through with doing what you say (reliability). When stating values allow for discussion with your teen, it is important not to come off as a “dictator” but rather a concerned and protective parent.

3. Let them know what you Like and Appreciate about them. They do want to please you. Let them know the little things that make a difference in your family life. Like, “Thank you for putting the dishes away in the dishwasher before I start dinner, it makes clean up so much easier.” Or, “Thank you for helping your sister with her Math. You seem to know how to do the new math so much better than I do.” Or “I really like your friends. They seem like such nice guys/girls”. (It is very important that you acknowledge and like their friends- even if it is just some, not all.) Sometimes we are more courteous to strangers than to our own family.

4. Touch base with them. Use specific questions to inquire about their day in a non-evaluative way. For instance,“What are you learning in Science right now?” or “Is Tony in any of your classes this year?” Or even after the back to school night you might want to know who their favorite teacher is, and share your impressions too. I have talked many parents who only know vague notions of how their child is doing. I hear, “She seems to be fine. There are no complaints so far.” Or “She seems happy to me.” Or “He doesn’t ask for help, so I guess he understands it.” It could be just a few minutes in the car, or during dinner, or while you are running errands. These questions indicate that you want to know about their life and are ready to listen, not necessarily to advise.

5. Don’t Rush in to Rescue, Critique, Advise or Fix . Listen instead. Simpler said than done! Your teen wants to solve their own problems, sometimes they already know what they are going to do to make the situation better. So when your child tells you something distressing, you can just use minimal language, like “Oh, that’s a bummer.” Or “Hmm”, “I see”, “Okay”. And wait to see how your child verbalizes how they are going to solve the problem. For instance, “Tammi didn’t invite me to her party this weekend.” You respond with, “Oh”. Your daughter feels safe sharing so she adds, “Yeah, at first I was really bummed, but then I realized that I really don’t know the other girls going anyway and might feel really uncomfortable”. Many parents want to rush in to rescue and advise their teen with “Well, then don’t invite her to your party” or “We can find something better to do anyway” or “I never really liked her, so you’re better off without her as a friend.” These tend to actually make your child feel worse! By now you have probably given your child lots of good advice and wisdom – it is time to see them use it. These minimal verbal responses let them know you are listening, but not controlling. That you are present. That you are interested. That you are willing to listen.

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