Is it possible to communicate with a teenager? Yes… we are always communicating with our teens. However, the issue has more to do with quality than quantity and often the quality is not that great.
Effective communication with teens can be enhanced by focusing on a few ground rules:
- Keep it short: Most teens dislike “lectures.” Keep to the point with brevity and you will be more likely to have an impact. Your teen may not acknowledge this impact though, so don’t be surprised if their response to your short life lesson is the word “whatever.”
- Influence over direction: When our children are young we are the “boss” and make all the decisions related to their care. As they become older they take over more and more control of their lives; there are only a few areas of life in which we still have “control” as parents. For instance we do not have control over who their friends are; this is an area in which we “influence” decisions. Giving an opinion in a brief manner carries more weight than trying to tell a teen who his friends should be. Some parents, however, pull back from being the boss to saying nothing at all. Teens, though, are open to influence and might question our commitment and love if we do not offer our opinions from time to time.
- Review your own life as a teen: It can be useful to think back on our lives as teens and remember how we got along with our own parents. There was a father who was very strict with his sixteen year old daughter. He had been a rebel as a teen and much more adventurous than his daughter. He was worried that his daughter would go down the path he had followed and she was beginning to do so as a response to his controlling style of parenting. In another instance a mother had clashed with her own mother who had been very directive towards her. As a parent of a teen she was using the same approach her mother had used on her and it was working just as poorly. It was as if these two parents had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.
- Be aware of the “tasks of adolescence”: Teenagers are in the process of making the transition from childhood to adulthood and in this journey there are themes which tend to surface. Most teens will experiment with ideas and lifestyle decisions, including friendships. Sometimes these choices are very different than those they would have made in the past. You will have a young person who has always gone to church with his family; now he no longer wishes to attend or if he does, he sits off by himself. You will have another teen whose family rarely if ever attended a church service and she will begin to go to a church with a friend. Teens are very peer conscious and will seem to make friends their major priority; they are also hypersensitive to authority and being “bossed around.”It becomes important to teens to be unique. The teen is in the process of “individuating” or of becoming an independent adult. Once the transition is made, many of the decisions about lifestyle are similar to those embraced as a child and yet the young adult is living this lifestyle because it is her choice to do so, not that of her parents.
- Reach out regularly: When relationships become tense, it can be easy to ignore each other and to not initiate contact. We used to go on Sunday outings as a family and our 16 year old daughter would stay behind. One day we made our plans and did not invite her to join us and she was upset. My excuse was that she always said no to the invitations and she responded that “she wanted to be invited anyway.” It was important to her that we still thought about her and wanted her to be part of our excursion. When she still said no to the invitation we suggested that she bring a friend and this pleased her; she came along with a friend in tow. Her friends would usually exclaim to us how great it was that we “did things as a family.”It is also important to be friendly. This can be challenging if things are tense between a parent and teen and yet it can be a simple way, over time, to warm things up. Teens can be reactionary and will play “tit for tat.” If we are negative they will respond in kind. If we are nice they may do the same, but not right away necessarily.
- Choices and consequences work: Being influential rather than directive is fine but there are some aspects of life which require direction; it is important however to avoid “power struggles.” Let’s say that you as a parent want help with chores around the home. You can create a list of five items and ask your teen to choose three. One of the items may not be negotiable, such as cleaning his room once a week. When the decisions have been made, deadlines are given which allow the teen freedom to complete the task at his convenience but by a deadline so that you as the parent have some assurance the job will eventually get done. If the deadline is met, all is well and it’s business as usual. If the deadline is not met there is a consequence which would have been spelled out before hand. If the room is not clean by five o’clock on Friday, no use of “media” (i.e. computer and phone) will be allowed until the job is done. If the agreement was that the teen be in by a certain time and she is late, the consequence might be a loss of media for 24 hours. If there is debate or argument about the consequence, this can be discouraged by offering a further consequence which is a doubling of the 24 to 48 hours. This second consequence often shortens the argument. Many teens prefer this approach to the hassling which can result from chores being ignored. They dislike “nagging” as much as they dislike “lectures.”
- Feelings first: When talking with a teen, or anyone for that matter, it can be useful to tune into his or her feelings. Keep in mind that when people say rude or outrageous things, the challenge for you is to focus on the feelings before reacting to the way they were shared. “You must be tired to be saying that” or “You sound really angry right now. Why don’t we talk later.”
- Collaborate with your spouse: Parents usually have very different parenting strategies and can easily become locked in a debate as to whose approach is the best. One person is usually strict and the other more easy going. The truth lies somewhere between the two approaches and can be best accessed by the parents listening to each other’s feelings and then trying to move to a collaborative position. Collaborative or “team parenting” can be very effective and can enhance the marital relationship at the same time.