Communication and Your Teen
By Amanda Beck
Edmond Family Counseling
Every day I hear adolescents who complain about their parents and how they “just don’t listen”. Similarly, I also hear parents make the very same complaint about their teens. So where is the disconnect? It seems that for many, a breakdown in communication may be to blame. Teens are especially prone to this issue as their stage of development is one of gaining independence from their families and gaining autonomy over their own choices. Many parents can be left feeling frustrated and unsure of how to get through to their teens as a result.
The first step for many is to understand a bit more about communication and how it impacts everyday interactions, and these skills can then be practically applied to improve communication in a variety of relationships. First, it’s important to understand the various types of communication and while there are many types the two primary categories are verbal and non-verbal communication. Verbal communication can be anything that involves words. When most people hear “verbal communication” their first thought is talking, for humans is a primary type of communication. Verbal communication can also look like texting, email, and even books and newspapers. It seems like humans often rely on this communication most frequently because of how effective and precise it can be for getting a persons’ point across successfully. A child telling his mother that his tummy hurts can help not only the child in gaining access to help but also his mother who now understands her child’s situation and can adjust her treatment accordingly.
Non-verbal communication can look a bit different and can include things like body language, eye contact, gestures (like pointing, giving a thumbs up, or a peace sign), and other less obvious areas like listening and visual communication (pictures, drawings, and many other types of art). In some instances, body language can communicate even more than spoken word. Have you ever had a friend who looked upset or sad and when asked how they were doing they would respond with a simple “I’m fine…”? Sometimes a person’s words do not match their body language and this can be a great indicator that they may need more than they are letting on. This can be quite common for teens who may not want to be so upfront with parents and adults on how they are feeling.
Now all of this information is great but you may be wondering, “What do I do with it?” Modeling a behavior is one of the best ways a parent can teach that behavior. Model the behavior you want to see. It can be quite difficult for a child to feel motivated to do chores if their parents never pick up a broom or a dirty dish, for example. Similarly, it’s important to model how you would like your teen to communicate. Using “I” statements can be a simple way to communicate how you are feeling in an assertive way without being too passive or aggressive. “I” statements can be as easy as a math formula: “I feel (emotion) when (situation)”. For example, “I feel happy when we spend time together”. Another example could be, “I feel anxious when you don’t tell me that you’ll be late”. With teens, even a simple, “I feel hurt when you roll your eyes at me” can communicate to them not only how their actions affect those around them, but also it can an appropriate way for them to communicate and share their feelings in return.
On the other side of “I” statements you can find reflective listening. This involves giving a summation of what a person is communicating with an emphasis on feelings. Your child may be complaining about a teacher from school that they felt wasn’t listening to them. A simple reflection could look something like, “It sounds like you felt unheard” or “It seems that you are frustrated by your teacher not listening to you”. This can be such a valuable tool in communication because not only does it help the communicator feel validated and heard but it also allows for correction and clarification if needed. Maybe you reflect that your child felt angry when really they felt sad. By making a reflection they can correct that feeling and clarify their position, once again leading to validation and feeling heard. It is often a struggle for parents of teenagers to listen to their teens vent or talk without stepping in and teaching or correcting, but so often a teen is more interested in feeling heard than looking for solutions. If you ever find yourself in that situation a reflection may just be a way to express care and concern while your teen feels loved and supported. Modeling this behavior can once again introduce your teen to healthy ways that they can communicate and support others as well, hopefully opening up a line of communication between parent and child that can last a lifetime.
Amanda Beck, M.A. LPC-C , is a staff therapist at Edmond Family Counseling