Being a parent can be a beautiful experience but at times parents find themselves struggling in their communication with teenagers and wondering where the manual is. For many it is not the big incidents that cause the heartbreak but the small day to day interactions that become weary over time. I can hear parents say “It shouldn’t be this hard” or “I just want them to…” How can simple requests become battlefields and what is all the fighting really about?
Teenagers do not come in a standard size or with an exchange option. Often people have an image in their heads of how “the perfect teenager” should be or how they thought parenthood was going to happen. This can be a very different picture from the teenager standing in front of them asking to be seen for who they really are in the given situation. When a teenager starts to speak often parents don’t just see the teenager but also a complex range of ideals in their heads. Add all the ideas they have about parenthood and we are looking at a very clouded view. This happens so quickly it can go unnoticed and inevitably clouds the natural human connection.
While working with teenagers, we have found that they are often surprised that an adult is actually interested in what is going on for them and willing to really listen to them. As parents, we often pretend to be interested while really just biding our time before we can swoop in with our advice or concerns. What if you took a different approach? Try listening to your teenager as another person and removing the ‘teenager’ label. Pause and listen to them with the same interest and respect that you would with any other person. By doing this, you will most likely find that you will be able to tune into WHAT they are saying and then perhaps communicate more effectively. If you listen with a fresh ear and an open mind, you will be truly open to what they are saying in that moment. By listening to what they are actually saying, you will be better able to respond. If you are willing to listen and respond effectively and respectfully, your teenager is going to be encouraged to communicate with you without fear of being shut down or getting the same old answers that they have previously received.
Also, tune into yourself and what your automatic thoughts are in this situation. Our minds have an incredible ability to create and repeat our own stories in every situation with characters such as “my teenager”. For parents to go one step further is to experiment with taking the label “my teenager” off. How does the individual in front of you sounds when it’s not part of your story. Parents can’t help but see their teenager through their own eyes with all the history, hopes and fears that projects into the teenager. This might be why some teenagers find it easier to talk to their friend’s parents or explain how some parents can be more empathetic with their teenager’s friends. Usually as the writer of the story our minds kindly puts us as the main star and therefore forgetting that teenagers are starring in their own story.
The lack of connection with our loved ones can almost become bearable and it can seem best just to get on with things but every so often the simplest of situations can create a sandstorm that makes us sit up. We reflect afterwards and say “I was just angry” or “it was their fault” and let the emotion settle wondering how it got so heated.
As an experiment look at the thoughts that happen in your mind after your teenager’s action the next time things start to get heated. Looking closely and honestly enough at these interpretations might allow us to see grains of sand in the storm.
Take the typical cleaning their bedroom argument “my teenager hasn’t cleaned his/her room after I asked them to several times”. In our minds, we may have the following possible thoughts as an example:
· My teenager doesn’t have any respect for me
· If I was a better Parent, my teenager would respect me
· I am a good Parent but my teenager doesn’t care about me after all I have done for them
· None of the children in this house care about me
· I have had enough of this!
Now let us consider what would happen if we examined our first interpretation. So my teenager hasn’t cleaned their room after I asked them too. The thought that followed may have been that ‘my teenager doesn’t have any respect for me’. By pausing and taking time to think of our reactions, we can look at our interpretations. So pause in a situation like this and think:
· What is going on for me (am I tired or in a bad mood)
· Do my expectations for a clean bedroom come anywhere near my teen’s idea of a clean room?
· What is going on for my teen? Is he/she upset about something else?
· Has my teen had a chance to clean their room (that is, have they been busy with study/sport/interests)
Allowing yourself the time to think and check in on the list above will help you to be more aware of what is going on for your teenager and communicate that with them. By showing that you have tried to tune into what is going on for them will show them that you are not just ‘being a nag’ or ‘always on their case’, but that you have listened and are trying to understand them. If you acknowledge their feelings and/or the reasons for not cleaning the room (e.g. I know that you have been busy with sports lately…), this will help your teenager to listen to what you have to say as you are clearly demonstrating that you have listened to them! Keeping this type of practice using the steps outlined above, will help to improve communication with your teenager and should help to avoid those angry exchanges where both the parent and the teenager are upset and feel unheard.
Think about the respect and attention you give to your relationships with your adult friends and try to use this as a yardstick on how you relate to your teenager!