By Mercedes Samudio, LCSW
As a parent coach, I often see parents battling their teens over topics that could have been addressed with more effective communication. And I often see teens struggle with life issues that they could have been avoided. If only they had reached out for support from their parents.
By the time children are teenagers, they have learned how their families communicate. They have learned what things get praised and what things get shut down. They have learned that how they express themselves may or may not be well received. And, unfortunately, many teens have developed a sense that no matter what they say they will not be heard correctly. Or that what they say will be taken out of context.
The good news, however, is that all is not lost. Parents can still improve the process of communicating with teens, even if they haven’t been successful in the past. Here are three strategies that you can use to open up the lines of communication with your teen. These strategies will also help you model for them how to communicate with others.
1. Create a space for communication.
An effective way to create a safe space for your teen to open is to set up one-on-one time with them. I encourage you to not have an agenda. Instead, let your teen know that you want to hear anything she wants to talk about; that what she says will be heard and not taken out of context; and that if she wants your opinion or help finding a solution, she can ask. A great follow-up: a few days after the one-on-one time, ask how things went with whatever your teen shared or show interest in whatever he talked about by asking about it. When teenagers know they have a safe space to talk, they will often use it.
2. Learn to accept how your teen communicates.
I advocate teaching teens to learn appropriate ways to express themselves. I also encourage you to let your teen communicate the best way they know how initially. As they share their ideas and feelings with you, too much nitpicking about how they’re communicating can shut the conversation down. Instead, letting them express themselves the way they feel comfortable will get the communication going. If they say things that you don’t understand, ask for clarification. If they say things or use language you don’t agree with, inquire about their reasoning for using that term or phrase and suggest another way to say it that will convey the same point. The idea is to get them talking so you know how they express and process things. Then you can guide them to using more effective communication skills.
3. Manage your reactions.
Some things that your teen may share with you will be intense and some things trivial. But no matter what your teen shares, be aware of how you’re reacting to it. Teens can sense subtleties in your tone and expressions just like adults can. And, if they think you’ll overreact and/or not take them seriously they’ll be more likely to shut down instead of open up! Think of it like this: If they came to you with the issue, they trust you to help. You can guide them through solutions and their feelings about the issue.
What I encourage parents to do is to acknowledge for your teen, learning to communicate needs, thoughts, feelings, and ideas can be difficult at times. Even when we know exactly what we want to say, a lot gets lost on the trail from our brains to our mouths. That’s an issue you have as well as your teen. When we normalize the complexity of communicating for our teens, it takes the weight off them having to say things the right way all the time! And it’s the first step to helping your teen realize that they don’t have to have it all figured out to talk to you!
Mercedes Samudio, LCSW, is a leading parenting expert, certified in nonviolent child-raising and attachment parenting, and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Woman’s Day, Daily Parent, Parenting OC Magazine and Kids In The House. Learn more about Samudio at her website, Shameproof Parenting.