Does this sound familiar? Your teenage son is taking forever in the bathroom (again), but you need him to get ready so you can get to work on time. You’re thinking, “How could I have raised such an inconsiderate kid? He’s so disrespectful!” Meanwhile, your child is locked in the bathroom, consumed with his image in the mirror. He’s thinking, “No way am I going to school with this pimple on my nose.” Outside in the hallway, you start pounding on the door, yelling at him to hurry up.
He screams, “God, you just don’t understand! Leave me alone!” When he finally emerges, he gives you the silent treatment. Not only that, he’s missed the bus, so you have to drive him to school. You end up late for work and completely overwhelmed, wondering, “Why doesn’t my kid listen to me? Does he have to fight me on everything?”
You and your teen: two different worlds, two different perspectives—and a giant disconnect that can make communicating a real mystery. As a therapist and the mother of three teenagers myself, I know firsthand that the more you push your kids, the more they get defensive and dig in their heels; they become reactive in the form of explosiveness or shutting down. And they’re thinking, “My parents don’t have a clue, so what’s the point of trying to explain myself? I’ll just tune them out.”
Clamming up or exploding are both ways your teenagers attempt to manage their stress and defend themselves. That’s because distance and explosiveness are often the only ways your teen knows how to communicate when things get intense—which of course only causes more conflict.
Here are tips that We’ve found to be really helpful personally for communicating with kids through the difficult adolescent years.
- Listen instead of lecturing. Lecturing just doesn’t work.
- Try not to judge. If your teen feels judged, they won’t approach you to tell you about serious problems.
- Encourage your teen to develop their own solutions to problems. You can make suggestions, but often you need to step back and allow your teen to work things out. Do intervene if the situation is unsafe.
- Yelling and intimidation may produce short-term compliance, but in the long run, they are ineffective and unkind strategies.
- Do something different if you have been using the same old scripts that haven’t worked before.
- Say something nice.
- Keep it short.
- Ask questions, but don’t “grill” your child.
- Talk while you are doing something together (like washing dishes or driving to activities). This way your teen doesn’t feel like the spotlight is on them.
- Create private times your child can count on, like a weekly trip to the ice cream store or a daily walk. If you have younger kids, put them to bed earlier so your teen can have some “adult” time with you.
- Turn off the TV, or at least watch some programs together and discuss them. TV can create some excellent teachable moments.
- Take turns talking – don’t monopolize the conversation.
- Ask your teen’s opinion – then be careful that what you consider “discussion” doesn’t sound like criticism to your teen.
- Ask for your teen’s help and expertise (for example, with using your computer on a project).
- Praise your teen in front of others, but not to the point of embarrassment (“Chris really helped me today when my computer wasn’t working properly. I had no idea they had such great skills!”).
- Be honest. If you don’t want to reveal certain information (such as details of your sex life when you were a teen), just say, “I’m not comfortable talking about that.”
- Don’t pry. You need enough information to help your teen stay safe, but you certainly shouldn’t expect to know everything. Trust me, you don’t want to know everything!
- Don’t make promises unless you plan to keep them.
- Share some of your own thoughts and experiences, but don’t overwhelm your child with adult problems and worries. Find an adult you can confide in, and be wary of putting too much on your teen’s shoulders.
- Make an honest evaluation of the percentage of your communication with your teen that is positive, negative, or neutral. Try to increase the positive things you say and decrease the negative.
- Watch the tone of your voice. Teens tend to be hyper-sensitive, even if they don’t show it. Take a few minutes to calm down, if necessary.
- Pay attention to your teen’s reactions. If they seem “tuned out,” stop talking. Allow time for your teen to talk, or pick up the conversation later when they are more receptive.
- Don’t try to have a conversation with a teen who is drunk or high.
- Don’t try to have a conversation when you are drunk or high.
- Address the behavior, not the person. There is a world of difference between “It upsets me when you leave dirty dishes all over the house, and I come home to a mess,” versus “You are a slob, and you never think of anyone but yourself!”
- Manage your moods. It’s not okay to take your anger or depression out on your teen, especially if you don’t want the same in return.
- Learn how your teen communicates with technology (cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook or MySpace, and text messaging). In addition to learning about technology to keep your teen safe, you can use these tools to enhance parent-teen communication by texting a message of encouragement or praising something your teen has posted.
- Stay in touch with your teen, but not obsessively. No high school senior needs six calls a day from Mom. Educate yourself about keeping your teen safe, then discuss phone and internet communication expectations for both you and your teen.
- Encourage your teen to take on more adult-like responsibilities as they get older, and gradually reduce your role from boss to coach.
- Discuss sensitive issues in a not-too-personal way. For example, have a conversation about contraception based on a movie scene you watched together, not by prying about your teen’s sex life. If you are too intrusive, your teen will most likely avoid the conversation or be dishonest. On the other hand, if you think your teen is in danger or is endangering others, be direct. Get help from a trusted person (a friend or a professional) if you need to plan a confrontation about a difficult issue.
- Use language that emphasizes that your family is a team. Tell positive stories about the past, and find some common interests that will engage even a teen in the stand-offish phase, such as looking at family pictures or working on a project that will benefit the teen (like painting their bedroom or repairing an old vehicle for the teen’s use).
- If, despite your best efforts, there is a total breakdown in communication that lasts more than a short while, or if your teen is endangering themself or anyone else, it is time for family counseling. Don’t be too proud to get help for the whole family.
- Remember to enjoy your teen, even when they are difficult. Don’t be afraid to say “I love you” and to give hugs if your teen is comfortable with physical affection.