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Listen up! How to effectively communicate with your teen

January 07, 2013

A few weeks ago, I was at work (I’m a counselor with the Teen Xpress program).  I sat there, speaking with Mike*, an eighteen year old male.  He is someone that I’ve worked with in the past, providing counseling on various issues; relationships, coping skills, and stress management.  On this day, we were talking about family dynamics and stress… particularly stress that he was feeling in regards to his relationship with his parents.

He discussed their relationship… the ups and downs, the frustrations, but also the bond that he has with them.  He shared that he knows that he always has their support and love, even when he messes up. As a counselor with Teen Xpress, these are not some of the typical things that clients share with me…  Unfortunately, the teens I see frequently have more challenges than this with their parental relationships.  We talked about how lucky he is that he has unconditional support from both parents.

Yet, I could still sense he was frustrated with them.  He began to tell a story about the night before, when he tried to talk with them about an issue he was having at school.  According to his side of the story, after attempting to explain a problem with a teacher, he was interrupted, told that they “didn’t want to hear it”, and informed of what the solution to the problem was before they had even heard what he had to say.  He looked at me and said, “Seriously, Miss Susie, why won’t parents just TALK to their kids?!”

Hmmm.  Such a simple, yet complicated question.

As a counselor, I felt for him.  As a parent, I felt for him AND his parents.  This client is the first to admit that he is not perfect.  He has made some questionable choices over the years.  From what I know of this client, in a way, I can understand his parents’ choice to not entertain (yet another) conversation about troubles in school.  However, I looked at his face, filled with confusion and disappointment, wondering why he (and so many others his age) just can’t seem to communicate openly with Mom and Dad, and thought, “He’s brought up a good point.”

The teen years can be hard.  We all know this.  There are often secrets, defiance, risk taking, and an innate need to separate from Mom and Dad.  All this growing up and individuation can take a toll on the parent/ child relationship.  My son is still young, so I haven’t lived this yet myself, but I’ve seen it play out with many, many teens and families.  It seems heart wrenching and frustrating for everyone at the same time.

I found it interesting that this student, an eighteen year old male, the epitome of “cool”, could talk of nothing else but wanting to connect with his mom and dad.  So… that is exactly what we talked about.  First, I asked him what were the chances of Mom and/ or Dad joining us for a session next week.  Unfortunately, due to work schedules, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.  So, we decided to focus on what Mike could do to improve things, and hope that changes he made might influence his parents’ choices.

Here’s what we came up with for Mike to try:

  • You can say anything to anyone, if you say it the right way: Politicians are the masters of this skill.  Tone and word choice are everything.  Calm, even tones.  No yelling, no sarcasm, no blaming.
  • Timing is everything.  Is the person you want to talk with angry, tired, hungry, or stressed?  Think about how the conversation might go if you approach them when they are not ready.  Wait for the right moment/ mood.
  • No “Always” and No “Never”.  No one likes to hear that they “always” or “never” do anything.  It can quickly cause defenses to rise.
  • I statements- Stick with talking about what you feel, not what the other person does.  “I feel frustrated when I try to talk with you about school, but you tell me you don’t want to hear it” sounds a lot different than “You don’t listen to me!”
  • Remember to try on the other person’s shoes.  Think about what is going on in the other person’s life.  Keep their struggles, their stresses in mind.  This doesn’t make your feelings any less valid, but empathizing with the other person can help the communication flow more smoothly.
  • Take turns.  Give each other time to talk.  No interrupting.
Mike said he was up for the challenge of trying to communicate with his mom and dad more effectively.  The idea of knowing exactly how he felt and being able to talk about it was a bit different for him, but he recognized the importance of sharing those things with his parents.  We discussed how no one knows how you feel unless you tell them.  I let him know that it’s not easy to suddenly try to change how you’ve been communicating with someone, but assured him that these skills will help him not only with family, but with relationships, friendships, school, and future coworkers.

A week passed, and I caught up with Mike.  He said that he and his parents spoke and that it went well!  He explained that he waited until an evening where his family was together and the mood was good.  He reported that he took the risk by asking them if they could all “talk”.  Mike said that his parents appeared unsure initially, but willingly engaged, asking him, “What’s up?”  Mike said that he explained carefully that he was feeling frustrated becomes sometimes he tries to talk with them and it doesn’t seem like they want to listen.  His parents countered with a question along the lines of, “Well, what do you expect?”, citing times that Mike has messed up, lied to them, and made some bad choices.  Mike told me that it was hard not to get defensive, but he recognized that those things were true, and told his parents that he understood, but was working on changing things.

Mike said that at that moment, the game changed.  His parents let down their guard a little, and an open, honest conversation occurred regarding Mike being respectful of his parents and asking for the same.  Mike admitted he and his Mom and Dad still have a long way to go, but that this was one of the best talks they’d ever had.  He smiled broadly when he reported that “No one yelled and no one got mad.”   Mike says that he looks forward to trying the new techniques with his girlfriend and teachers!  Success!