Any communication between parents and their children can be difficult, but when those children become teenagers, the potential for miscommunication increases greatly.
Parents are often bewildered by the sudden changes in their kids. Of course, children are always changing anyway, but particularly with teenagers, the techniques and communication style that may have worked well before, falter in the face of a sullen or defiant teen.
One cause is a natural tension between what parents continue to want for their children—safety, protection, and success, and what teenagers want as they mature—freedom, autonomy, and being treated as adults (even though they still act like kids at least part of the time).
I saw a TV ad awhile ago which illustrates this disconnect. An adorable 6 year old girl asks to borrow her father’s car. To our shock, he reluctantly gives permission.Then we see that she is actually 16, but her father still sees her as much younger.
As kids grow from six to sixteen, the skills required for successful parenting change a great deal. But, it is absolutely possible for parents and teens to learn skills that will improve their communication even when the situation or topic is new or difficult.
Most important for parents is learning to listen effectively rather than talking at teens. Lecturing actually doesn’t work well with anyone, and teens tend to explode or shut down. A common misconception parents and teens share is that listening means agreeing. On the contrary, listening opens connection and can lead to successful problem solving.
Almost everyone, including teenagers, responds to genuine interest and curiosity. Teens see right through phoniness. But, if you show that you want to hear their perspective, if you ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the response, if you can be fully in the moment and not plan your next response, teens are often very responsive and open.
Another transformative technique is learning to unhook from triggers and hot buttons. Both adults and teens can make comments which send the other person “through the roof”, short-circuiting any real discussion. Slowing down responses, even taking a time out, recognizing when you’ve been triggered, can help teens and adults respond from a saner, less reactive space.
I’ve been leading parent-teen communication workshops for a juvenile diversion program at my local community mediation center. Workshop participants have to be there in order to prevent the teens being sent to juvenile hall, and often resent it, parents and teens alike.
And still, their hunger to improve communication is so great, that most of them have some very positive experiences by the end and are enthusiastic about the new skills they’ve learned.
Parents can’t communicate with their teens lovingly and clearly if they don’t know how. That’s why workshops, coaching sessions, and mediations which help parents and teens learn and practice these techniques are so important.