Expert advice on how to communicate with teenagers
This is the first part in a series on parent-teen communication. What do you think? What advice would you give to parents, teens or anyone else who wants to be a better communicator? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
One thing I can promise you: I don’t have my stuff together. Especially when it comes to communication with my teenagers.
Professionally, I work with teenagers who are in recovery. Most times, I find a way to connect with the youth that I work with. But communicating with my kids? Somehow my professional skills melt like butter in the microwave on it’s way to my delicious popcorn.
Whenever emotion is involved, that’s when we can all lose track of our skills. We can be so good at work, but lose our sh*t at home. It’s like that with all of us. Emotions run high and our skills melt away.
Is there a secret to good parent-teen communication?
Below are a few ideas that I recommend to parents having difficulty with their teenagers, and they have saved my butt with my teenagers. The ideas aren’t really new and no, they are not in any specific order. Except for #1. In reality, if that’s all that you do well, you are doing well.
- Listen, listen, and listen again. Make time for it. Rather than listening for the purpose of preparing your argument, just be quiet and listen so that you can really hear what your teen is saying. Hear their heart, their hurt, their hopes and their fears. Put your damned iPhone down. (That one is for me).
- Stop looking for ammunition. I guarantee you can take some of what I have said here and twist it into bullets or bombs. More ammunition won’t fix bad communication. If you are looking for another way to win, you are the one who will lose out.
- Be real. They may not seem like they are listening, but they are. And they are watching what you do. Love acts. Even if you don’t know what to say, show your love.
- Stick to what is important, but soften your tone. It’s true that you should pick your battles, but at the same time watch when you bring out the big guns. If you come across angry all of the time, they will react to your emotion, and they will totally miss what you are saying. In everyday terms: If you come across as an ass*ole, that won’t help your communication.
- If you have rigid expectations, your teenagers will be rigid too. One of my clients said, “It’s like two brick walls: brick wall against brick wall.” How do you communicate when you have an important point that you really can’t compromise (such as drug use or driving drunk)? Stick to your guns, but try softening your tone. You might just hear them this time.
- Be quick to repair the relationship: Admit when you are wrong. And you go first… even if you feel that your kid is the one who made a mess of things. You can always improve yourself. Recognizing that you have screwed things up can help to ease the tension.
- Take a break from your problems. Talk seriously when you need to, but then make sure that you take your teenager out for a movie or a Coke. Relationship troubles are not solved over a Coke, but it does help to connect differently. Even if you don’t talk about anything when you are out, it’s still important.
- Be patient (with your teen and yes… with yourself). Remember that your teenager is at the mercy of their emotions, their wildly developing brain and their growing independence. If they are dealing with a mental illness such as addiction, depression, or anxiety, that will complicate things even more.
- Know that you can improve, but you need to ignore your brother-in-law’s stupid advice. Everyone has a know-it-all family member or friend who knows everything about recovery, raising teenagers or what to do with difficult kids. They have easy answers for very complex problems. Just ignore Bob, Steve or Susan. They may not go away, but at least you will sleep better at night.
- Get help when you can’t break the argument trap. It may be professional help or reading a book or attending a workshop. Whatever you can do, get more education and more support.
- You go first: Parents, it’s your turn to change first. You are the adult, so act like it. I know, that one will probably get me some hate mail.
- When you can’t reach them, pray. You may not be the praying kind, but honestly it won’t hurt. Just like with AA, admitting that you are wrong and pleading with yourself, calling to the Great Unknown, and asking for Grace can bring you back to your sanity.
What do the experts say?
I don’t know enough, so I did some research into effective parent-teen communication.
WebMD featured an excellent article by Talking With Teens – Tips for Better Communication.” Osterweil interviewed two experts on adolescent development: Laurence Steinberg, PhD, Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia; and Carol Maxym, PhD, who counsels families in Honolulu and Washington, D.C., titled “
The experts reminded me of one of the basics: When you say “Do it because I am the parent,” you will lose your kid’s. They may not know as much as you do, or have your wisdom, but they understand the logical gaps in your arguments. They get when something doesn’t make sense.
The article echoed one of my tips, be real: “Parents need to be emotionally authentic… Kids know their parents really well and pick up on it, and as soon as you as a parent become inauthentic, you’ve lost any chance of real communication,” according to Maxym.
Recognize that you and your teenager may see things much, much differently. You may be concerned with their behavior as a lack of responsibility: a messy room, sleeping in or missing curfew. Your teens, they may see it as a way to exercise their freedom. If you become rigid and insist that you are right and how your teenager is wrong, don’t even bother starting an argument because you have lost their attention. Don’t surrender your values, but soften your tone.
The WebMD article gives you and I some tips as parents, and a few ideas that might just help your adolescent (direct quotations are in italics):
A few ideas for the parents
- Don’t lecture, have a conversation. A conversation involves at least two people, but lectures are really not conversations. When emotions get the best of you, that’s when you need to stop talking. Yeah, that one is really, really difficult. If all you are doing is yelling, no one is listening to you.
- Attacking will shut down your conversation. “The conversation between any two people will break down if one of the two is put on the defensive and made to feel he’s being accused of something,” says Steinberg.
- Show respect. When was the last time you asked your teenager what they really think? You may be surprised by what you hear. Ask your teenager for their point of view. Be quiet and listen. “Teenagers can be surprisingly easy to talk with if the parents make it clear that they’re listening to the teen’s point of view.”
- Keep it short and simple. Maxym urges parents to remember what she calls the “50% rule”: “Almost every parent says at least 50% more than he or she should. Shut up. Remember when you were a teen and your parents lectured at you? And you thought, ‘Will you please stop; I already got the point!’ Stop before your teen gets there.”
- Be yourself. You are the parent… So, be the parent. Be friendly but don’t try to be a friend.
- Look for teachable moments. The best conversations happen in the moments when you are just living your life. Asking a good question that makes them think can change your conversation. My best conversations with my teenagers are in my car. It makes sense, I’m not mad but I’m listening more than I’m talking. We are usually alone with our teen. There are fewer distractions. We don’t have to look at each other. And we are going somewhere, so the conversation won’t go on forever. Find those moments and seize them.
For the Teenagers
- Put yourself into your parent’s seat. This may sound like I am talking another language, but try to see things from their perspective. If you want to have more freedom or get access to the car more often, ask yourself what they are concerned about: your safety and your whereabouts. Every time you are out, they will worry, that’s their job. If all that you can see is what you want, you will miss that they love you and need to know that you are going to be okay.
- Address their concerns and do what you say you are going to do. You can say something like, “If I am allowed to stay out later, I will tell you in advance where I’m going to be so you know how to reach me,” or “I’ll call you to let you know where I am, and that way you won’t have to worry about it.”
- Don’t get defensive. When your parents say no to you, it can be frustrating. But stop for a moment, do you think they have a reason for what they are saying? They really do have a point. Give them some credit because they know a few things about life.
- Show them some respect. If you criticize or ridicule their viewpoints, you will create or continue an argument. If you want respect for your opinions, give them the same respect. In the animal kingdom, the only animals that roll their eyes are sharks who are ready to attack. Rolling your eyes (and mumbling disrespectful comments under your breath) is like gas on the fire.
- Make requests rather than demand. Simple, but difficult to do (for all of us).
- Use “I” statements. Really, this one is good for you and for your parents. It might sound cheezy, but using I statements is one of the best ways to get your position across. Saying things like “I feel that you’re not being fair.” Or, “I feel like you’re not hearing what I am saying” can help. Avoid “you” statements, such as “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
So what worked has for you? If you are reading this, you personally have survived the teenage years and you probably have a few ideas. Or you may be a parent who has been through a lot and you have wisdom to share. I would love to hear from you in the comments. This is the first piece in a mini-series on family communication. If you share something with me, I will add your wisdom to a future article.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to check out some of my other work:
I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.
Lastly, if you like my writing, you can click here to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.
Keep it Real
Photo by Rolands Lakis