How many parents and teens find it easy to communicate with each other? “You never listen to me,” or “You just don’t understand,” are common complaints—heard as much from teens as from their parents.
Much of the communication that goes on in a household with teens involves demands and complaints, says Don Dinkmeyer, PhD, author of Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Teens. Commands like “Stop that,” and “You will follow my rules as long as you live here,” serve to shut down, rather than open up communication. They offer little in the way of sharing feelings and beliefs.
True communication is a two-way street. It requires an open, honest relationship in which you can each express your feelings, listen without making judgments, and attempt to understand the other’s point of view. The biggest obstacle to effective communication is our own egos. When we insist on being right, we lose the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue.
ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS
Dinkmeyer suggests asking yourself the following questions, to determine if you are communicating openly with your teen:
- Am I honest with my teenager? Do I really say what I feel, in a non-hurtful way?
- Can my teen be honest with me? If he shares his beliefs with me, and they are different than mine, am I still able to accept them?
- Do I listen before debating or retorting?
- Do I give positive feedback, without demanding a change?
- Am I open to receiving feedback from my teenager?
- If I were a teen, would I come to me to share a feeling or a goal?
TIPS FOR COMMUNICATING WITH TEENS
Here are some tips for communicating more effectively with teenagers:
Listen openly. Your teen needs to know that she can come to you with a problem, and that you will listen without making judgments or placing blame. You always learn more through listening than through talking.
Listen actively. Active listening means following what the person is saying carefully, and repeating it back to make sure you got it right. You may feel as if you are restating the obvious, but there is plenty of room for miscommunication between parents and teens. Dinkmeyer suggests using phrases like, “Were you saying…,” “You believe…,” or “You feel… because….”
Avoid threats and accusations. Your teenager won’t respond to shouting any better than your three-year-old did. You can easily get whipped into a frenzy when dealing with a teenager—just as you can with a toddler—but it is precisely because teens are so volatile that they need you to remain calm. A quiet firmness will give your teen something to lean on (or push against); shouting will only turn him off. A change in tone can turn an accusation into a concerned question—and improve the chance that it will be answered.
Avoid nagging and nitpicking. Even more so with adolescents than with young children, you cannot expect to control everything they do. Forget commenting on hair and dress, and save your input for the things that matter. Then, as you did when your children were younger, state your expectations clearly and get out of the way.
Give constructive criticism. At times, natural consequences will not be enough—when you feel strongly about something and need to let your child know how you feel. In this case, a loving tone, careful attention to word choice, and strict adherence to the subject are important if you want your adolescent to hear you. As you warm up to the subject, remember that bringing up different problems, with admonishments like “and another thing…..,” will only convince your teens that you think they can’t do anything right. If other issues need attention, discuss them later.
Use humor. Humor is your ally; use it to diffuse a tense situation and to let your teen know that you are both on the same side.
Sneak in mini-lectures. One of the biggest turn-offs to effective communication is sitting down to have a “little talk” (although sometimes you must). Try to work in your words of wisdom in the car, at the dinner table, or around the house. Your teens need to know what you think, but they don’t want to be lectured to.
Find sports or activities to share. Communicating can be easier in the midst of a shared activity. Simply working on a project together is good non-verbal communication. Tossing a baseball, building a bookshelf, or cooking a meal all allow parents and children to develop skills together and to take joint pride in what they have accomplished. At the same time, the activity creates a non-threatening atmosphere. Conversation can happen in fits and starts, and if it gets too close to a sore point, attention can be diverted for a while to the project at hand. Even though your teen is spending more time with her peers, try to find a common interest that will keep you communicating.
Establish rituals. Rituals can keep your family close. A ritual could be Sunday night supper, or a weekly family meeting, or a tradition of reading aloud together after dinner. For a ritual to last, establish it early on and be sure every family member participates in and gets pleasure out of it.
Write it down. If you and your teen are at an impasse, you may need to put your thoughts on paper to allow her to digest them more openly and less defensively. If a letter seems too formal, try making a tape.
Put it in your own words—or someone else’s. By sharing your own experiences, you can let your teen know where you stand on an issue, as well as show that you understand what he is going through. Sometimes you may need to let someone else do the talking. As Michael Reira, author or Uncommon Advice for Parents of Teenagers says, what you tell your children may be ignored, but the same piece of advice from an admired teacher is brilliant.
Communicate through touch. Don’t forget, as your children grow, the importance of touch. Sometimes a hug or a backrub is the best way to tell your child that you are concerned and you care.
Trust that you have done a good job of communicating your values. You have shared your moral standards with your child all along, through your words and your deeds. Now, when your child is poised on the brink of adulthood, you need to trust that your upbringing will “take.” You can be ready to share your values when your adolescent needs to hear them again, but you cannot dictate his values for him. Even if his values ultimately end up being similar to yours, he needs to think them through and to open up the possibility of rejecting them before he can make them his own.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011 and founded Mothering.com in 1995. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of two.