Communication can be tricky and doing it well can take a good deal of practice. When it comes to your teen, knowing what to say can be especially complicated and the road to communication may seem daunting and, at times, even impassable. But, there’s good news- even if you and your teen haven’t perfected your verbal skills, there are several things you can do which will help take you steps forward on your journey.
1. Start with the small stuff.
Many parents I work with have expressed wanting their adolescent to come to them when they have a problem. But, those same parents often don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time talking with their teen about the small stuff, like video games or the plot of the latest blockbuster movie. To be honest, in today’s busy world, topics like these may seem insignificant and frequently take a backseat to more pressing issues. But, the fact is that if you give your teen attention about things that important to her, the more likely she is to come to you with the bigger issues when they come up.
2. Have an open door policy.
You need to always let your teen know that they can talk to you about anything and without consequence. This can be tough for some parents because there are some things your adolescent may share that you think warrant a punishment. For instance, if your son comes to you and says that he was at a friend’s house and they drank a few beers, you may very well want to prohibit him from seeing that friend or tell him he’s grounded. However, if you do something like that, you are greatly decreasing your chances that he’ll share something of this magnitude with you again. In a case such as this, expressing your feelings of disappointment would be totally appropriate, but it’s most important to listen. After all, if he’s coming to you, he’s having feelings about what happened and may be looking for some guidance. At some point in the conversation, you may say that if he does something like that again, there will be a consequence and you could discuss what will happen. But, take golden opportunities such as this to really support your adolescent and help him make better decisions in the future.
3. Have a re-open door policy.
Sometimes when you are ready to talk, your teen might not be in the mood. For some parents, if they try to start a conversation with their teen and they end up getting shut down, the parent may feel disrespected, rejected or frustrated. These feelings may lead the parent to shut down their child at a later time, when the teen is ready to talk, “Oh, so now you want to talk?! Well, now I don’t feel like it.” This is not helpful for anyone since it does it move the current conversation forward nor does it build good communication for the future. You don’t need to tolerate severe disrespect (this will be covered in another article), but if your adolescent doesn’t want to talk when you do, it may not be intentionally disrespectful, but instead just normative teenage behavior. With your teen, you need to keep the door open for communication and then re-open it, even when they were the ones who closed it.
4. Avoid questions that back your teen into a corner.
Many times when working with parents of younger children, I have heard complaints that their child “lies” or remains silent when asked particular questions, such as, “Did you hit your sister?” In cases such as this, a child is backed into a corner and they don’t know how to get out, so they either say they didn’t do it or plead the fifth, so to speak. This behavior frustrates parents when it happens with children, but it can be enraging to parents of teenagers. In order to avoid getting into situations such as this, avoid questions that feel unanswerable to your teen. A question that many parents ask that often doesn’t yield a helpful answer from their adolescent is, “What were you thinking?!” The true answer is that your child probably wasn’t thinking, at least not clearly and certainly with the judgment an adult would have. But, questions such as this do not promote a feeling of understanding for your teen, so stick to questions that your teen can answer.
5. Remember, your teen can be listening without giving a verbal response.
Whenever I run a therapy group, I always tell the members that one of the group rules is that everyone must be an active participant and I define that by saying each person may do this either by talking or by listening. The same rule should apply for you and your adolescent. Sometimes, you or your child may need time to process what has been said and not offering an immediate verbal response is okay. Some parents may experience this as being ignored, which can be exasperating. To make sure you are being heard, it’s okay to check in with your teen by saying something like, “If you need some time to think about this, that’s fine. Do you want a minute?” Let them know that you need at least a nod and then they can take a time out, if needed.
The road to communication can feel very long, but it’s a road worth traveling on with your adolescent. It may be bumpy at times, but there’s much you can do to ease the journey. So, start with small steps and eventually, you’ll see how far you’ve come!