With a new relationship dynamic forming, parents often fall into the trap of ‘demanding’ information or preferred behaviours from their teenager, instead of listening more to where they are at and what they want/need, as they try to find out who they are and crystallize the person they want to be. What can parents do to practice active listening and improve the relationship between themselves and their teenagers? Read on to find out how to stay connected and family strong.
What is Effective Communication?
You and your teenager are communicating effectively when you both feel able to talk freely about your feelings, and you feel heard and understood. If you are able to share the ‘little’ things between you in an easy manner, the likelihood that you will share increased comfortability in communicating openly during times where the tougher topics emerge is greater. This will enable you both to approach difficult conversations in a direct and honest manner. Most importantly, if both sides feel they are respected, then effective communication occurs with kindness and without judgement, knowing that whatever is being said comes from a place of caring.
Effective communication is a conscious, proactive action, and these six key strategies will help you stay on track to being there for your teenager, without crowding their space or their privacy.
#1 Keep the Communication Lines Open
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’
Teenage years can be tricky for many families. Young people may develop ideas and values that are different from those of their parents, growing into their own beliefs, formed by layering their own experiences, interests, and passions over the family foundation layer. This is part of the normal process of moving towards independence, however, negative communication is a common cause of conflict between a parent and teenagers during this transition. Slammed doors, shouting, arguments, tears, flat refusals – sound familiar?
The important thing to remember through it all is that teens really do want their parents involved with them but on their terms. Parents need to appreciate the fact that teenagers have a different view of the world. Those views may run contrary to a parents’ belief structure or even values, however, it is important that the teenagers’ views and opinions are respected. Take time during your conversations and practice active listening – often we are surprised by how much people will confide in you when they feel that they are really being heard and listened to. Giving out clear and consistent messages, whatever is happening, will also help to ground you both.
Key messages from you:
· I love you (unconditionally) and I will always love you.
· Your voice is part of the family’s voice. You and your opinions are considered important, and we are all of equal importance.
#2 Turn off the Parent Alarm
It’s instinctive for parents to want to protect their teenagers, resolve their problems, and guide them into safe waters, keeping the sharks at bay. The flip side of this is that sometimes we ‘over-anticipate’ issues. An announcement that they are going to a party at the weekend is often met with ‘Where is it?’, ‘Whose party is it?’, ‘How are you getting home?’ and so on.
If they come home with a bad grade in their last exam or assessment, we often want to know what happened, what other people got, or we may even claim indignantly that this is why they should have revised instead of going out with friends the week before. When your teenager shares that they have met someone they like, we ask ‘How old are they?’, ‘Which school do they go to?’ ‘Where are they from?’
Many of these questions are based on our own expectations of our teenagers, and often subconsciously rooted in judgement, coming from our own bias about status and culture. It is important that we acknowledge this, and actively pause to first listen to our teenager’s take on the situation, and try and see what they are sharing through their eyes before responding.
Turn off the parent alarm and listen without judgement and reaction. As parents, we need to understand that what is most important is that we listen, and then say what is helpful, proactive, and supportive.
Key message from you:
· I am learning about you as you grow up. I appreciate and celebrate all the good things about you, and the amazing potential you have.
#3 Avoid “The Lecture
Pointing out that a particular piece of behaviour was irresponsible, or criticizing a choice they have made, is not the best way to start a conversation; it immediately gets their hackles up and the shutter drops. Don’t assume or accuse. Just as with younger children, it is important not to pre-suppose that you know what is going on, or what has happened.
Parents who lecture are not heard. Parents who lecture may block communication from their teenagers. Parents who lecture may find it difficult to transition into healthy adult relationships with their teenagers.
Asking an open question such as, “What happened?’ is much more likely to trigger an open and honest discussion. By listening to their side of the story first, they are much more likely to cooperate and accept consequences. It’s important to use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements, stating a reason other than they haven’t done what they agreed they would do. For example, an angry call is often a knee-jerk reaction from parents worried about where their teenager is, such as ‘You’re late. You were supposed to be home by 10 pm. Where on earth are you?’ A call such as ‘You’re late home. Just calling to check everything is okay, as I was worried about you’ is much likely to open a positive dialogue, and achieve the same result i.e. reminding them that this is a rule about safety and not control.
Teens are happy to hear their parent’s values and opinions, but these opinions should not be shared in a way that feels judgmental or condescending. It’s key that we try to avoid personal territory that will force a teen into defensive mode, whether defending themselves or their friends.
Key messages from you:
· I know there will be times when you will make mistakes in judgment, and you need the space to do that.
· I’m on your side when that happens
#4 Pick Your Battles
If all you do is criticize, your teen is less likely to be able to distinguish when you are seriously critical, as opposed to not overly enthusiastic about it. If it’s the latter, then try for something positive or at least non-judgemental. For example, if your teenager brings home a new friend, and you don’t take to them immediately, the first thing to remember is that it’s their friend, not yours. Refrain from commenting, or if asked, respond with something neutral such as “Great that you have made a new friend’ or ‘She seems very polite.’ Neutral is a great gear for the teenage years!
This means that when it is serious, and it’s time for you to step in to keep your teenager safe from receiving or causing harm, they will hopefully hear you.
A basic guideline is that safety issues are always worth fighting over, such as not getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking or making sure they call if they are going to be late. A common parent complaint is the ‘untidy bedroom’, and this is a great one to ignore as it’s fundamentally their choice to live with the mess. If it really bothers you, keep the door shut, and make it their own responsibility to keep up with the cleaning, etc.
Key messages from you:
· I know that sometimes you don’t like the house rules. We have them to keep you safe.
· I love your courage and willingness to explore. The rules are also there to give you this freedom.
#5 Make time to spend together
Talking isn’t the only way to communicate, and during these years it’s important to spend time doing things you both enjoy, whether it’s exercise, cooking together, going out for a meal or seeing a film, without talking about anything personal. They need to know that they can spend time with you in a positive way, without the fear that it will be used as an opportunity to “discuss x’.
Teenagers are often busy with school, friends, hobbies, and outside activities, which is why a conversation with them over breakfast and dinner is worth its weight in gold. One rule: no phones allowed. If mealtimes are the only touchpoint on some days, resist using it to air your issues, and keep it a battle free, everyday discussion zone. If there is a problem that needs discussing, agree on a time, but don’t make it mealtime, which is an important time for mental and physical health.
Offer to take them to or pick them up from places; this will provide other opportunities for conversations. Many parents complain that these are the ‘taxi driver’ years; savvy parents know that this is the time when you find out all sorts of things from your teen in casual conversation. The forward-facing, not looking at each other positioning is a great encouragement for non-confrontational, informal chats, especially as your teenager is in appreciating the lift mode.
Kids who feel comfortable talking to parents about everyday things are also likely to be more open when the tough stuff comes up and needs to get out there on the table.