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Effective communication is key to building a healthy relationship with your teen. Yet even the best relationships need help with communication. This is an area in which we can all improve. Honest communication can be difficult and painful, but it can also make your relationships stronger and better. Also, keep in mind that learning how to communicate well is a skill you can learn and practice. As you do so, you’ll begin to see positive changes in your relationships.

Seven Bad Habits that Block Communication

The seven habits that block communication are:

  1. Passing judgment on your teen or his/her close friends.
  2. Sharing personal experiences inappropriately.
  3. Ignoring your teen.
  4. Giving advice to your teen (fixing the problem).
  5. Interpreting what your teen says incorrectly.
  6. Interrogating your teen.
  7. Reassuring your teen when it’s not appropriate.

Some parents are professional ambulance drivers. They exist to clean up after their children’s mistakes, fix the accidents their children get into, and otherwise take care of everyone. These kinds of parents struggle with #7 and #4 above. It’s hard for a teen to have a meaningful relationship with a parent who doesn’t trust him/her enough to let him/her experience the positive and negative sides of life. Parents like this mistakenly represent to their teen that he/she is incapable and weak.

Other parents tend to be more like drill sergeants. They demand, nag, and yell at their children. Parents like this use #1 and #6 above. These parents tend to be reactive. Though they may seem like they are in control, they are actually very out of control. Insecurity, fear, and anxiety rule their lives. Teens see right through this. If their parents are not in control, who is? Teens with parents like this end up taking control themselves.

Then there are the parents who try to be therapists to their children. Parents like this share personal stories in an effort to influence their teen (#2 above), but don’t pay attention to their teen rolling his/her eyes. These parents forget that their teen just wants someone to listen. They fall into the trap of trying to help their teen make sense of his/her experiences by interpreting his/her feelings for him/her instead of letting him/her struggle through the confusion him/herself (#5 above). They inadvertently communicate to their teen that his/her opinions, thoughts, and feelings are not as important or valuable as his/her parents.

No parent tries to damage the lines of communication with their teen on purpose. It’s just easy to slip into patterns of interacting. Like well-worn country roads, our tires find the ruts and it becomes difficult to communicate differently without exerting a lot of effort to move onto smoother pavement.

Three Principles of Communication

There are three broad principles of communication that can help parents begin to repair broken communication patterns:

  • Honesty and Clarity
  • Respect and Responsibility
  • You Are Always Communicating

Honesty and Clarity

Honesty is vital to any relationship. Our relationships will be inhibited if we feel one way about a person and act differently.

Communicate with honesty and clarity by differentiating between thoughts and feelings. Use language that shows the difference between your thoughts and feelings. For example, “When I am thinking about ____, I feel _____”. When you say “I think that’s good”, it’s not specific enough. Try saying something like “I feel confident about what you said right now and I think you are on the right track”.

You also communicate with honesty and clarity when you take responsibility for how you feel and the consequences of feeling that way. For example, instead of saying, “You make me angry when you swear at me”, you might say, “When you swear at me, I feel bad, and then I get angry with you”.

Be up-front with information that concerns your teen. He/she should always know where you stand when it comes to your relationship with him/her. When your teen knows what you expect of him/her and what you would do in a given situation, he/she will feel secure in your relationship.

Be clear and specific when you communicate with your teen. Instead of saying “You’re an ungrateful brat”, try saying “You hurt my feelings when you said I’m the only person who doesn’t care about you”.

Finally, request and expect honesty and clarity from your teen. When your teen is being vague, ask for clarification. For example, you might say, “Amber, you say you “can’t get anything right.” What do you mean by that exactly?”

Respect and Responsibility

The ambulance parents mentioned above struggle with this principle of communication the most. Their anxiety for their teen is so great they can’t help but do almost everything for them. They feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their children and often feel like they aren’t doing enough. This sense of failure drives them to do even more.

Parents who try to fix everything for their teen do not mean for their actions to backfire, but that is what happens. Teens begin to believe that their parents view them as incompetent. When this happens, the teens either start to believe they are incompetent or they rebel against it.

Parents can stop fixing their teen’s problems and start allowing their teen to fix his/her own problems. They can do this by protecting their teen’s personal responsibility. For example, they might say “What is your responsibility in this situation?” or “And what do you want to do now?”

Parents can also reinforce their teen’s self-exploratory behavior by refusing to answer questions that their teen can answer first. In response to the teen’s questioning about what he/she should do, a parent might say “What have you thought about that?” or “I’d like to hear your ideas first.”

Parents can help their teens value their own ideas and perceptions by saying things like, “Tell me again how you see things”, or “What else was going through your mind at the time?” or “I don’t know what I would have done. What did you do?”

As parents help their teen become more self-sufficient, they allow their teen to direct the conversation while they facilitate it. They use cues like nods, hand gestures, “Hmmm” and “I see” to keep the conversation going.

You Are Always Communicating

Remember, you are always communicating. Parents may think they are fooling their teens when they communicate one thing on the surface while feeling or intending something else. However, teens pick up on it! Practice to ensure what you’re communicating and what you’re feeling match. And if you ever think you are not communicating anything to your teen, remember that the only person you’re fooling is yourself. Even angry or loving silence is communicating a message.

How Does Your Family Communicate?

You can try the following exercises to learn how your family communicates and where improvements might be made:

  • At home, identify the pattern of expression in your family. How does each member feel when he/she is trying to express him/herself?
  • Draw a scale from one to ten. Decide where your family would fall based on openness and honesty with thoughts and feelings. One is the least open and ten would be very open. Discuss what changes would need to be made to move up one step on the scale. Commit to making those changes.
  • Discuss what it means to own your thoughts and feelings. Discuss why this is important and how blaming, criticizing, defensiveness and victimization are blocks to open communication.
  • Host family meetings where each member has an opportunity to share feedback, problems or concerns, or ask questions. This is also a good time to set family goals and create a weekly schedule.