Communicating With Teens

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By Christine Rushford, Coastal Counseling

Many parents complain that their teenagers no longer talk with them. Communication has now taken the form of sullen mumbling or random, rage-filled outbursts. Many teens prefer the company of friends rather than their family which leads to hurt feelings all around. As children turn into teenagers their job is to separate from the parents/caregivers in their lives. It is developmentally appropriate and necessary for them to begin to pull away and become independent.

My advice to parents of teens is, “Don’t take anything personally.” Teenagers are in a difficult stage of life. They are figuring out who they are independent of parents. That is why you will often see teens bucking commonly held family morals and beliefs. They are testing those beliefs to see if it’s what they actually believe in personally. Your teenager faces judgement, deadlines and peer pressure every day, but is still in the process of learning how to juggle all of those demands. It’s no wonder, tempers can be short. You are a safe space for your teen to melt down. I know that does not make the outbursts any more enjoyable for you, but it does take the personal affront out of it at least.
There are several steps that you can take to ensure communication with your teen remains intact. The first step is to be in the same room as your teen. As any parent of a teenager can tell you, it is not unusual for your child to stay in his or her room for long periods of time and deliver heavy eye rolling and sighs when you enter their domain. For that reason, I suggest the next popular room in the house for teenagers-the kitchen. Prepare a favorite snack when your teen is due home from school. Be sure that you are able to be completely present in that moment-no cell phone, no work emails, etc.
Parents often make the mistake of drilling their kids with questions when they walk in the door, “What did you get on your exam? Did you remember to take out the trash?” Or parents make the other mistake of asking a bland question like “How was school?” Both of these communication styles will most likely lead to a miscommunication with your teenager. Instead, try asking your teen an open- ended question about something he is interested in. For example, “I heard you listening to a new song the other day, what’s up with that band?” By sticking to neutral topics of interest, you are more likely to gain positive communication as a response.
Another very important step is to listen. As parents we often jump in to offer advice or point out what our child did wrong in a situation. Our teens will shut down immediately if there is any sense of judgement or criticism as a response to their opening up to us. Instead, focus on active listening skills—nodding your head in agreement, leaning into the conversation and empathizing, “That’s lousy that Jennifer said that to you…” There is so much that is said without words, you will get a glimpse into your teen’s world if you pay attention to body language and facial expressions. If your teen is saying something you disagree with, hold it to yourself and approach the topic at a later time.
As children grow into teenagers, rules and expectations must be adjusted. Allow your teen the ability to have some input into the rules that govern their life. If you immediately shut down your teen’s attempts to negotiate with rules, you risk shutting down their communication completely. Everyone has a need to feel heard, including teenagers. This doesn’t mean that you give into every request your teen makes, such as missing curfew, but if you hear your teen out, you might find he has a valid point. If he knows you are willing to listen, he will be more willing to speak up.
One final suggestion is to set limits on their cell phone usage. This is not a popular tactic with teens of course, but it is necessary. Set times throughout the day where a technology ban is in place—meal time, one hour before bedtime, in the car, etc. Our kids have distraction right in their back pockets, and do not feel the need to communicate with those around them. They also lack the impulse control to refrain from looking at their phones. When we take away that distraction, they might complain at first, but at least they will be talking to you! Eventually it will just become an accepted expectation within the home that opens up opportunity for talk. Don’t forget, the cell phone ban is for everyone in the home, including parents.
These years with teenagers are fleeting, just as their toddler years were. As your teen gains confidence in who she is as a person, you will see a return to easy conversations. Have patience, give love (especially when he is unlovable) and engage in active listening.