Good parent-child communication during adolescence can make or break a child’s future. If you can’t communicate with your teen, you can’t influence them. Period! They are growing too old for you to exert your will through sheer force alone. So if you want to have any influence on the direction of their lives, it needs to come through communication.
This means that just when talking to your child becomes a lot harder, maintaining good communication within a functional relationship becomes all the more important. The task may be difficult, but it’s far from impossible. Believe it or not, teens don’t want to completely alienate themselves from you or shut you out of their life. They still love and respect you, and many still want your advice. They just want you to respect their growing independence and offer your guidance in a way that doesn’t belittle them or jeopardize the autonomy that they are working so hard to create. With a few adjustments and a lot of concern, you’ll be able to keep the lines of communication open.
Keys to healthy parent-teen communication
Avoid approaching your children with an agenda
Many parents approach conversation as a utility: they only use it when they want it to work towards some end. They expect to bring up a topic, resolve it, and then be on their way. This approach doesn’t work well with kids of any age, and it’s especially toxic to teens. Therefore if you’re regularly taking the initiative with an agenda in mind, you’ve already lost the communication battle.
As Rosalind Wiseman points out, “Most parents ask leading questions so they can ‘share’ their opinion.” Yet teens want to know “that you’re capable of having a conversation that doesn’t revolve around your role as Enforcer.” (Wiseman, 2009, pp. 59-60) Even when parents try to do this subtly (“I noticed you’ve been spending an awful lot of time with Katy lately …”) the teen immediately picks up the hint: Mom is trying to communicate her anxiety about Katy and pass on her judgment about what a bad influence Katy is.
You can’t just turn your teen on like a light switch whenever you want to convey something to them and then expect your teen to be receptive to the message. When you try to use virtually every discussion to preach to them, teens start to tune you out.
- Follow the 80/20 rule: For every conversation you engage in with the idea of telling your teen something, there should be at least 4 others you have simply for the sake of dialogue.
- Try to go into every conversation with the idea that you’re not going to parent them. This is a good time to abide by the idea that your teen is the teacher, and you’re the student.
- Don’t ask too many questions in a single session. It’s overwhelming and starts to feel like an interrogation.
Treat them like an adult
Teens need to be able to use loaded language or bad words in front of you without you getting upset. These things have been part of their world for quite some time, and it doesn’t make any sense to insist upon PG language at all times in the home when each day they go to school and are immersed in XXX. Focus on the context in which these words are used, and don’t scold them simply for using them. It’s hard for teens to talk to you when they can’t use the language that others use with them.
Whatever you do, don’t claim to understand them!
Avoid saying things like, “I know exactly what you feel” or “I understand what you’re going through.” While this may seem like a perfectly reasonable and compassionate statement from your standpoint, teens despise it when parents presume to know what they’re feeling.
Bill and Kathy Kvols-Riedler note that teens “often don’t want to be understood, especially by an adult. They feel their problems are unique.” (1979, p. 210) Educator Rosalind Wiseman offers the same cautionary advice: “Teens hate it when adults pretend they know what teens are feeling, unless they have their own story to prove that they do.” (2006, p. 273) So it would appear that this trait is universal: the struggles teens face seem monumental to them, and so they don’t like it when adults trivialize these challenges by claiming to understand. So if you’re looking to express sympathy and comradery, try some of the following statements instead:
- I can only imagine how that made you feel.
- Obviously I can’t put myself in your shoes and know exactly what your’re going through, but I dealt with a similar situation when I was your age. (Insert story here.) It taught me that …
- If I were in your shoes, imagine I’d be pretty bothered by that too.
How to convey empathy
Though you should avoid claims that you completely understand what they’re going through, you should look for ways to express empathy every time a child comes to you with a problem, even if you don’t agree with the accuracy of her thoughts. This can be expressed with statments like…
Girls are really horrible at times, aren’t they?
There are occasions when it really sucks to be a teen.
I know it feels like life really blows right now, but you’ll get through it.
Watch your mannerisms
“Don’t sigh, roll your eyes, or click your teeth. These are all very annoying when
you’re talking to your Martian parents!”
– Alexa, age 13 (Wiseman, 2009)
Teens are very attuned to your body language, and these nonverbal cues can be as off-putting as what you say directly. So watch your body language, especially when it comes to how you react to things you might not agree with.
It’s also important to act natural, and not get so concerned about looking sympathetic that you overdo it. As one 13-year-old girl complains: “My dad really tries hard to listen and to understand me, but sometimes he nods his head up and down so much when I’m talking, he reminds me of those dogs some people have in their cars with the springs in their heads.” (Elium & Elium, 1994, p. 165)
Separate but connected
Understand that good communication does not mean finding ways to re-exert your God-like authority over your child nor being privy to every little thing that happens in their life. Your teen needs to have a life of their own. They need to have secrets. They need to push for autonomy and maintain some psychological distance. Good communication means your teen enjoys talking to you and can come to you for advice. It does not mean a return to your rule as dictator.