By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Eight ways to improve communication with your teens.
Therapists get lots of questions about communication. Couples want to know how to communicate better; parents want to know how to communicate with their kids.
What many people mean by wanting to improve communication is “How can I convince them to do what I want them to do?” That is not communication. It may be assertiveness training, or manipulation, or just normal parenting skills but it is not communication. Maybe improving compliance would be a good topic for a future blog. That is not what this one is about.
Communication is about the ability to hear and be heard even when we may not agree or like the message we are receiving.
Dictionaries, like Encarta, have multiple definitions for the word communication. The word means variously, exchange of information, a message, a sense of mutual understanding, sympathy, and many other related things.
Here are some suggestions for improving communication with teens, some of these suggestions are appropriate for younger children; most would help adults improve their communications.
1. Communicate early and often.
The time to open communication with kids is as young as possible. Parents often spend the early years telling kids, not listening to them. If the only time you talk to your child is to correct them, preach at them, or give them your guidance it is unlikely that suddenly they will by some miracle begin to communicate with you. Communication should be a two-way street. The good news is that it is probably never too late to open up communication but as the child gets older it becomes more difficult. So parents who start communicating, really listening to their child, have a big head start on parents who wait till the kid is a teenager and then decide to open the lines of communication. Communication is a skill. The more you practice it the better you should get at it. By having good communication with your child you teach them how to have good communication with the others in their life. If your primary way of communicating is by yelling and making the kids wrong, they will probably yell at their kids and their spouse. The better they become at yelling the more likely it becomes that you will get to yell at them some more when they divorce and move back into your house with the grand-kids. I am hoping this is not sounding like a good idea.
2. Listen don’t tell.
Have you ever met someone who tried to do all the talking? How did that feel? Did it make you want to spend more time around them? It is no different for your kids. There is a built-in bias with parent-child communication. Your kids want you to like them. They will censor what they say. If you do the talking they will skip the hard to say things about the mistakes they make and the feelings they have. So the more you talk the less likely your kids are to tell you anything. If your kids no longer care what you think, it is not because you have good communication. You are already losing the battle. Seek help NOW!
3. Be available to talk.
Good communication with kids can’t be scheduled in advance. Yes, absolutely, you need some regular consistent time to spend with kids. You also need to schedule some time for yourself and your partner. Having good communication with yourself should be a priority. Communicating with your partner is only important if you plan to keep them. (Did you get the sarcasm there?) If you want to improve the relationship with your child, make talking with them a priority. Work toward a life where you can always interrupt what you’re doing to communicate with your child. If you can’t talk right now, let them know you want to talk and will get back to them as soon as possible. Then make sure you do get back to them. This method helps hugely with spouses, partners, co-workers, do I need to keep going here?
4. Listen for the feelings, not the facts.
If you are taking notes while they are talking you will shut down the communication. It is important to make sure you have heard them correctly. Profession counselors are taught to summarize and reflect back what the client has said. We want to be sure that what we heard is what the client really meant. The teen who gets turned down for a date is feeling bad. Telling them they are young, they will have lots of chances, you know you aren’t supposed to be getting serious at your age – none of these things is helpful when they are full of tears. Right now hear them. There will be lots of time for teaching moments later. Sometimes we need to interject some reality testing here. Because the kid’s friend didn’t want to do something with them does not mean no one wants to be around them and they will never have a friend. Because we have a feeling does not make that a fact. It is not just kids who mistake feelings for reality. Speaking in front of a group may feel scary, it is probably not life-threatening. Something’s that sounds all good and fun, like some of the new drugs or sexual activity turn out to be a lot more dangerous than they seem. Teach your kids not to mistake how they feel about something for the facts.
5. Try to think about what they are saying not what you are going to say next.
If we are busy planning our response we will miss a lot of the key parts of what the kid is saying. This is true for most other situations. Most of the time what you will say in response is really not that important, right now. Wait till later for your turn. Didn’t someone important say it is better to hear than to be heard? If you don’t recognize the quote look in that big black book that is gathering dust on your nightstand. No, not the phone number book, the other big black one.
6. Remember the first rule of parenting – parents need to be parents and kids should be kids.
You are not your child’s best friend. This is really painful for some adults. They want their kids to like them so the kid can say anything, do anything and it is O. K. That is not a good idea. We should be able to hear what our child says, no matter how much we dislike the information but that does not mean we should do nothing. Kids need to learn that there are something’s that are not appropriate to say. They learn that by adults letting them know that what they have said is not acceptable.
7. It should be O. K. for your teen to talk with someone else.
Ever notice your child’s friends will tell you things that they haven’t told their parents. You are not so ego-involved with the neighbor’s kids. If they failed a test you can comfort them. Harder to do when your child fails, you are picturing the not-graduating from high school scenario, the no college live at home forever plot. If your own kid says I flunked the Algebra test you might recoil in horror. With the neighbor’s kid, you can take it in stride. By the way – if your kid’s friends never talk to you, check the mirror and wonder why. Talking to your friend’s parents is a natural teen behavior. Don’t be insulted if you kid talks to someone else, be happy they have someone they can confide in. Just make sure their friends and friend’s parents are someone you feel good about them talking with.
Sometimes kids need to talk with a professional, maybe this will be someone in your church or at their school. Other times you may need to seek out a Licensed Therapist or Counselor. Don’t take this as an indictment of your parenting. Knowing when your kid needs to talk with a professional is a sign of your maturity. Knowing when you need to look for help for yourself is also a good sign.
8. Watch for changes in the mood or behavior of your teen.
Kids who withdraw or isolate are at high risk. New friends, especially the kind they never wanted to be around before is also a warning sign. Kids who are turning to drugs, especially alcohol abuse are at high risk. These are tough times to be a kid. Lots of peer pressure, it is a scary world. Kids who suddenly don’t want to do things that they used to like are at high risk. Changes in sleep and appetite for no apparent reason should worry you. The kid who used to talk to you but suddenly won’t talk to anyone should concern you. No one likes to think about their kid having problems but suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-mutilating are all on the rise. The kid who least wants to talk to his parents may have the greatest need. When you can’t get your child to communicate it is time to look for help.
My special thanks to my office colleague Wendy Brox, LMFT who suggested this topic and whose ideas help me in writing this.
Let me know what you think about these tips and as always questions, comments, and ideas for future blogs are welcome.
David Miller, LMFT, LPCC