Listening Is Key to Communication
Communication, we’re told, is the key to, well, pretty much everything. Communicating with our teens, however, is often one of the most challenging issues we face as parents and caregivers. Even when our attempts at conversation are met with stony silence, eye rolls or an indecipherable grunt, the importance of keeping the intergenerational lines of communication open outweighs any frustration, irritation or awkwardness we may encounter. Fortunately, communication is both an art and a skill. With a little practice and a lot of patience, we can improve – and the rewards are well worth the effort.
Importance of Communication
The teenage years are a time when adolescents begin to pull away from parents and assert their own independence, making their own decisions about issues with real consequences – everything from school, friends and driving to substance use/abuse and sex. Unfortunately, this happens just when they’re particularly prone to risk-taking and impulsivity and not especially adept at regulating their emotions.
Needless to say, it can get messy. More than a few parents are tempted to throw up their hands and throw in the towel. Yet, this is exactly when it’s most important to have a healthy and trusting relationship with your child. Despite what you may think, they need you just as much as they ever did, if not more. Continued communication allows you to serve as a sounding board and encourages your teen to come to you with problems.
You benefit, too. Effective communication helps parents feel more connected with their kids, improves their relationship and makes them more confident about having difficult conversations and resolving conflicts. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Listen. Don’t lecture.
“The truth is, with teenagers, if you’re talking to them at all, it’s always a lecture. That’s all they hear,” says Scott Aycock, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. “In your mind, you may think, ‘Oh, I’m just instructing them, just giving them advice.’ But if they’re in their teenage years, in their mind, if your lips are moving, it’s a lecture.”
To be a better listener, be genuinely interested and curious about what your child is telling you. This means giving them your complete attention. Put down the cell phone and turn off the TV. Don’t jump in with advice, and don’t interrogate them with rapid-fire questions.
Sometimes it’s better just to sit back than ask any questions at all. Teens are more likely to open up if they don’t feel pressured to share information. Pay attention to what they are saying, even in passing. An offhand comment about something that happened during the day is often their way of reaching out. Try to stay open and interested without prying (admittedly a balancing act), and you may learn more.
“That can be frustrating for parents because, in a lot of ways, communication is how we really connect,” Aycock says. “But if you have a kid that’s doing relatively well, and they’re not misbehaving in some way, or showing signs of drug or alcohol abuse, and they’re not suicidal, then you can kind of back off and say, ‘I’m here. If you ever want to talk, please let me know. I’m interested in your life.’”
Validate Their Feelings
It’s hard not to want to solve your child’s problems or downplay their disappointments, but to them, doing so can feel dismissive of their feelings. Most teens feel no one truly understands what they’re going through. Try showing them that you understand and empathize. It can feel awkward at first, but statements like, “I know this seems unfair,” or “That must be frustrating for you,” let your teenager know you’re listening and doing your best to understand how they feel.
Don’t Blame or Shame
Teenagers will make mistakes. That’s how they learn. If your child talks to you about those mistakes, resist the urge to blame or shame them for what has happened. That’s the quickest way to shut them down. Be understanding and compassionate. Assure them it’s okay to make mistakes. Focus on helping them process their emotions and reflect on what they’ve learned.
This requires you to control your own emotions. Aycock advises parents not to “overreact or freak out.” Instead, try to listen calmly before responding.
Look for the Good
Parenting often seems like being a perpetual hall monitor, constantly checking for and correcting bad behavior. It’s not fun for us, and it’s definitely not fun for our kids. Finding everyday opportunities to notice the good things kids do goes a long way toward improving communication.
“You don’t want to just notice when kids do something wrong. You also want to notice when they do something, right,” Aycock encourages. “It’s positive reinforcement.”
As Aycock explains, this can be as simple as expressing appreciation for daily courtesies or acknowledging positive behavior with comments like, “That means a lot. I really appreciate it. That makes my job easier.”
Without a doubt, communicating with teenagers can be challenging, but the rewards can, quite literally, last a lifetime, and small steps can make a big difference. If you’re looking for more tips, Aycock recommends Foster Cline, MD’s Parenting with Love & Logic as a good resource.
Julie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.