Does it sometimes feel that your adolescent started speaking a new language once they became a teenager? Well, there is some truth to that. After 20 years of working with teens/tweens, I have conclusively found that what you intend to say or convey is interpreted much differently by your teen/tween than the same message might have been received even a year or two earlier. While it is a normal developmental stage for adolescents to individuate from parents, it does increase the difficulty of having clear communication and understanding.
Communication is incredibly important in understanding your teen’s point-of-view, life situations, and needs, and is vital in determining when your teen/tween may need your help and support. Below are some suggestions you can use . . . but don’t expect that your teen/tween will immediately be open to increased communication. Even when asked directly, they may deny experiencing emotional distress or any form of trouble. It will take work on your part to get to the heart of things and will likely be a gradual process to improve communication. So how do you bridge that communication disconnect with your teen/tween?
10 Strategies to Improve Communication With Your Teen/Tween:
Quality time - Spend time talking WITH not TO your teen/tween. I know life is busy and hectic but try to carve out a few minutes each day connecting with your kids. Talk about topics that interest them or spend time doing something that they enjoy.
Family meals - Have at least one meal a week as a family with no cell phones, television, or any other distractions. Spend this time with each other connecting. It may be awkward at first, but it will get easier.
Engaging questions - Avoid questions that can be answered with one word; teens/tweens seem to love providing one-word answers! For example, questions like, “Did you have a good day?” “How was your exam?” or “How was practice?” will be answered with “okay,” “fine,” or meh.” Instead, ask them to tell you something specific about their day: “What did Mr. Jones talk about in psychology today?” “What questions on your exam surprised you?” “Tell me about the plays you did in practice today?” Get them to engage you in conversation.
Elicit more information – When your teen/tween shares something with you, respond with something like, “I would like to learn more about that; can you help me better understand?” or “That is really interesting; please tell me more,” or “That sounds really cool! Please tell me all about it and don’t leave out a single detail”
Be aware of your reactions - If you ask your teen how they are feeling and they say “great,” be happy for them without expressing high levels of excitement. If they share feeling upset, avoid becoming visibly upset yourself; stay grounded. I know it may feel counter-intuitive, so let me explain. If you say something like, “I’m so relieved you are feeling better! I am so happy to hear that! I have been so worried about you!” While this may be completely true, your teen may may interpret your reactions the following way: telling you they are doing great makes you happy and pleases you (reward), and sharing with you that they are feeling upset will cause you to be worried, disappointed, and distressed (negative). This unintentional positive and negative feedback may falsely inflate reports of doing great and minimize sharing feelings of emotional distress and/or crisis. I don’t mean that you should not share in your teens/tween’s joys and sorrows--of course you want to show you are happy for them when they get the lead part in the school play and join with them empathically when they share that their best friend betrayed their trust--just ensure they observe you being emotionally grounded regardless of what they say. Consistently communicate to them that you are able to support them, regardless of how wonderful or awful they may feel. I have worked with countless teens that beg me not to contact their parents to discuss their state of emotional crisis due to a fear of worrying or upsetting their parents. Make sure your teen is assured that you are able to manage the worry that comes with being a parent.
Listen without giving advice - Avoid giving them advice unless they specifically ask you. They will share more if they trust that they won’t be judged or given unsolicited advice. This can be difficult to do: you have more life experience and wisdom to offer that can help them avoid making huge and possibly painful mistakes, and it is your job to guide your teen, but we all need to learn things on our own and in our own time, your teen included. Sometimes learning the hard way provides the best life lessons. Simply listen and offer them the space and support to talk. You may ask them if they would like your feedback or if they prefer you simply listen. This will help you to know how to proceed. Then stick to it. If they do not want advice, don’t give it. (It’s the same with adults: most of us don’t like unsolicited advice!) When you honor your young person in this way, they will see your respect for them and may come to trust you with more information, and even to ask for your opinion. I don’t mean to suggest that you ignore suicidal thoughts or destructive behavior; those situations require your intervention and action.
Ensure an absence of shaming - Avoid saying anything that could cause them to feel embarrassed, judged, or shamed. If your teen does not like to be teased about certain things, respect that.
Use “I statements” - When setting boundaries or informing your adolescent that you do not like a particular behavior, avoid using statements that begin with the pronoun, you. For example, “You are being so disrespectful rolling your eyes and speaking to me in that sarcastic tone of voice. You need to stop that right now!”. While this may absolutely be true, saying it in this manner will likely elicit defensiveness and a counter-attack. Instead try, “I feel disrespected and hurt when spoken to in a sarcastic tone of voice and when you roll your eyes at me. I don’t like it, please do not do that”.
Model appropriate emotional regulation - If your teen/tween doesn’t believe that you have the coping skills to handle their problems, they likely will not share them with you. The only way for them to gain this information is to observe your behavior and actions, along with your words.
Support a connection with a trusted adult - If your teen continues to resist talking with you, see if they will talk to a trusted adult. They may already have a great relationship with a trusted adult: an aunt, uncle, parent’s friend, grandparent, coach, teacher, youth instructor, counselor, etc. Teens/tweens may feel more comfortable opening up to an adult that isn’t a parent. It’s nothing against you, it’s just how teens/tweens often are at this life stage.
Adolescents are impulsive and highly emotional; it is the stage of their brain development. They may not yet have the tools to navigate things when life gets difficult. You can be your teen’s best support, but it takes time, effort, and troubleshooting for your teen to believe and trust that you can handle anything that they share with you without feeling judged or shamed, or with it upsetting you.
The relationship you have with your teen may look different than the relationship you had with them when they were a child; it’s a normal and necessary part of their development. The teen years can be a challenge, but it can also be magical to witness your child develop deep thoughts and opinions, and engage in insightful conversations. I love the time I spend with teens and tweens! When one takes the time to delve more deeply, we will find that teenagers aren’t scary creatures after all, but incredible humans?!?”