One of the most important parenting practices is good communication. Communication is especially important during adolescence, when old patterns of communicating may have to be altered to fit the growing needs and capabilities of your adolescent. Just as your relationship may seem to be changing, so is your communication.
During adolescence, teens are striving to gain independence and develop their own sense of self, while at the same time needing a strong sense of connection to parents, family, and peers. Teenagers are notorious for being difficult to communicate with. In addition to the raging hormones, their social life expectations are at an all-time high, and their circle of friends will become a critical point of importance in their lives. To maintain open communication and remind them that their family, not their friends, should be their number one priority, developing a close-knit relationship is crucial.
Important Aspects of Communication
One of the most important aspects of parent-teen communication is trust. Your teen must feel that he or she can trust you, and the parent must be able to trust (and communicate that trust to) the teen in the things that he or she is sharing. Parents must strive to create an atmosphere in which all family members are free to discuss whatever topics they need to discuss. Flexibility in family communication allows the adolescent to express himself or herself. Teens need an opportunity for open and honest self-expression. By developing and using good communication skills, sensitive issues that arise during adolescence, such as sexuality and drug or alcohol use, can be discussed with greater comfort and success. In fact, research has shown that adolescents who share more openly with their parents are less likely to abuse substances and are more likely to be influenced by a parent concerning sexual relationships.
Finding time to communicate with your teen may prove to be a challenge in today’s busy world. Devoting just a few minutes a day to listening actively to your teen is a good place to start. Arrange a time when you are both free to talk about the day. Remember, it is important to let your adolescent share without feeling pressured into sharing.
Let your adolescent know that you accept and value his or her point of view and that you respect his or her opinion. Often, parents can get held down by cultural stereotypes of teens, which can influence the way they hear their own teen communicate. It is important to really listen to teens and think about what they are saying through their perspective. Confirmation of an adolescent’s perspective has been linked to positive personality development. Parents need to understand what adolescence is like in today’s society, as well as the pressures and choices adolescents face.
Tips for Effective Communication
In order to solve family problems, it is important to be able to discuss them openly. Effective communication involves both listening and speaking. Good listeners show an interest in what the other person is saying. Consider the following guidelines, and how you might use them to improve your family communication skills.
- Practice active listening. Active listening is when you are not thinking about anything else other than what is being said to you. When a teen is talking to you, you should be spending time trying to understand his or her viewpoint or feelings, not trying to develop arguments or rebuttals to what he or she is saying. You do not have to agree or disagree with him; just make him aware that you understand how he feels. Do not try to explain away his emotions. Truly listening to children builds trust and lets them know that adults are interested in their thoughts, ideas and feelings, even if they still don’t get their own way. Stop what you are doing and look at the teenager with proper attention. The teen should not be talking to a newspaper or your back. Ask questions that go beyond “yes” or “no” answers to prompt more developed conversation.
- Clear, consistent messages. Adults must model the behavior you want, ensure your nonverbal body language matches what you’re saying and avoid mixed signals. Parents, you need to state your values and expectations clearly, so there is no question as to how you feel or what you mean. Use your values to explain the limits you place on your child. Be especially clear about your expectations for rules and limits and the consequences for misbehavior, even if you have to write them down. Your values bond you as a family.
- Include them in decision-making. When appropriate, involve the teenager in decision making and setting consequences for his or her behavior. They will feel ownership of the mistake when they’ve helped set up the consequences.
- Become an “askable” adult. Encourage teens to come to you when they need help by reacting in a nonjudgmental way and helping them solve their problems. You can only be assured that you are effectively communicating with a teen if you have your emotions under control. Do not overreact to what is said. Remember, sometimes teenagers say things that are designed to get a reaction from adults. Think before you open your mouth.
- Find time to spend together. Parents need to create situations in which communication can occur (during car rides or while you are doing chores together, such as standing in the line at the supermarket or folding laundry at home). You have to be physically close to your teenager for communication to occur. Additionally, be sure to use the time you have together to connect, for example, don’t sit at the dinner table reading today’s mail. Try getting involved in something that your teen is involved in, even if it is just attending their games. This will give you a common topic to talk about. If your schedules are hectic, schedule in time doing something your teen likes to do.
- Be positive. During the time you spend together, talk about what is good in your life, even if it is trivial. For instance, you could tell them you learned something new, you like your friend’s new haircut, you’re looking forward to an upcoming event, etc. Don’t pressure anyone to converse back, just let it happen. Enjoy the time. Modeling this positive behavior for your teen will get them to start looking for the positive in their own lives – and then you’ll get to hear about it. Also, don’t dwell on mistakes, failures, misbehaviors, or something they forgot to do. Give them positive communication and talk about their successes, accomplishments, interests, and appropriate behavior.
- Don’t criticize. While a teen’s actions may have upset and worried you, you can take steps to handle those problems. Mistakes are often the best teachers. Criticism will only tear down your teen’s self-esteem.
- Avoid power struggles. No one needs to be right in a conversation. Opinions are owned by the person who holds them. Allowing a teen to own their opinions will turn a potential power struggle into a conversation where you both win and learn a little bit more about each other. If you’re trying to reach a decision, your goal should be to have the communication move toward a compromise situation.
- Be discreet. Keep your thoughts to yourself around other people when you are upset. You will alienate your teen if you share their dirty laundry with neighbors or extended family. This will break down trust.
- Use the media to bring up topics. Watch whatever teens are watching on TV, listen to their music, and read whatever teens are reading. Tough topics come up in the media all of the time. When you use these to talk to your teen, it takes the personal edge off, since your aren’t discussing anything that is actually happening in their lives. It gives you an opportunity to share your values and pearls of wisdom in a nonjudgmental way.
- Focus on their interests. Talk to them about what excites them (e.g., music, sports, computers, dance-team practice, cars). Have conversations with them when you are not trying to make a point, to teach them something, or to impress them. Talk to them just to talk and to have positive verbal interaction.
- Avoid talking too much. Repeating lectures, questioning excessively, or using other forms of communication that will result in the teenager turning a deaf ear to you. For parents in discipline situations, simply restate the rules and the consequence previously agreed on and that you expect your teen will follow through with it.
- Share Your Experiences. When talking to teens about a problem they are having, tell them a similar story from your past. They will appreciate hearing what came out of your experience and will also feel that they are not the only one going through this type of situation.
- Admit Your Mistakes. It’s important to admit when you’re wrong and apologize for what you might have said or done. It builds trust and teaches children that it is okay to be wrong and how to apologize.
- Tell Them You Love Them. Parents, don’t forget to tell your kids that you love them. Yes, they may roll their eyes at you or act like they don’t care, but they do. Just don’t tell them in front of their friends.
Try using these active listening skills with your adolescent. After some practice, introduce your family to the idea of using effective communication skills. Describe the guidelines presented here, and take turns being the listener. See the difference that good communication skills can make in your family!
Thurlow, C. (2003). Teenagers in communication, teenagers on communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 22, 50–57.
Williams, A. (2003). Adolescents’ relationship with parents. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 58–65. Ohio
Bahareh Talei, Psy.D.
Diagnostic & Counseling Center, Inc.
Phone: (818) 324-6594
Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).