Communication 101: Improving Communication with your Teenager

text400I used to think the best way to have a meaningful conversation with my teenager was to get her into the car and take a drive. Trapped in a moving vehicle, I was able to ask meaty questions and get responses in mostly complete sentences–several words strung together rather than the typical grunt or shoulder shrug. It seemed like a brilliant way to gain valuable information from my teen. She would share her feelings, worries, and joys all while looking out the car window and changing the radio station. Without me eagerly staring into her eyes hopeful for any piece of information, the limited eye contact appeared to make it easier for her to be genuine.  I knew this could not be the only way to communicate better with my teen.

A frustration level still exists for me when trying to have a positive, two-way conversation with my teen. There are new challenges I am learning to navigate–I cannot use the “car method” very often, as my teen is now a boarder at Deerfield Academy. Cell phones make us easily accessible, but technology is rapidly changing. Texting has replaced the phone call. These brief electronic messages comprised of abbreviated spellings, eliminate the need to engage in conversation. Why do teens love to text so much? It’s silent, it allows for privacy, and texting conversations can happen anywhere without anyone knowing what is being said. Unfortunately, texts can be misunderstood if you are not thoughtful when composing them, making communication more difficult between a parent and teen. Parents and teens need to pay attention to what is being said and keep the conversation fluid. There are positives with new technology. You can have a conversation anytime, anywhere. And, Skype and FaceTime bring new opportunities for richer conversations from afar. Emotions can be seen and heard. I have found that while my teen is at Deerfield, texts are an easy way to send a brief message to stay in touch, but I need to make phone conversations a priority each week to enrich our understanding of each other and feel connected. But I want to improve the quality of these conversations. A little research sent me in the right direction.

Adolescent psychologists agree on a few guidelines to help foster better communication between parents and teens. Whether you are talking face-to-face or by phone, here are some tips to help make conversations with your teen more meaningful and pleasant.

Listen More than You Speak

A teen needs to be heard and feel respected. This helps him/her to develop trust and a sense of well-being and self-esteem. When a teen shares information with a parent, the parent needs to listen and respond without judgment and reaction. Listen to your teen with understanding.  If a parent overreacts, the teen is less likely to share information again. My daughter, Lucy has told me that she often just wants me to listen to her, without offering advice or a response. She wants to share her feelings and know that I understand her. Dr. Stuart Bicknell, Coordinator of Counseling at Deerfield Academy, says this is called reflective or active listening. Dr. Bicknell states, “Sometimes teens call you, just needing to vent. A great response is ‘sounds like you’re really upset about this…’ That will open the door for more sharing. They probably aren’t asking you to problem–solve for them–although it is often tempting to jump in and take over in hopes of sparing them any pain. But what they really want is reassurance that you’re hearing their feelings! The content will follow. Empower them…even if they are asking you to problem-solve, your role may be to help strategize about possible solutions.”

Keep it Short and Avoid the Lecture

Experts agree that a teen will stop listening once a parent goes into “lecture-mode”. It is very hard for most parents to avoid this. When I try to share my opinions, I almost always end up in a lecture. My teen’s eyes have glassed over and she is inching her way out of the room. If this happens on the phone, she suddenly has to go and the conversation is over. Dr. Bicknell suggests that parents of adolescents begin to move from micro-managers to consultants.

“We have to ask ourselves, sometimes in every interaction, ‘What is my role on this issue or decision? Where are we on it? What if we move a little more towards the consultant role? Whose needs are being met here? Being a consultant doesn’t mean abandoning limits. Rules and policies and awareness of consequences are critical. They may still need our support as they climb on the ethical jungle gym. Providing structure and being clear about expectations is critical. Setting limits around credit cards and spending allowance for the Greer; expectations around vacation and off-campus weekend behavior, for example, are very appropriate parental communications. But that’s not micromanaging. And your children should be a part of these conversations.”

Get the Conversation Started

I asked my daughter and some of her friends who board at Deerfield Academy how often they speak with their parents. Lucy Baldwin, a junior from Connecticut, said she “texts everyday with her parents and the phone calls vary from everyday to once a week.”  Ben Garfinkel, a junior from California, says he “calls his parents every three days and texts his dad every other day.” My daughter, Lucy, and I text several times a week and she calls me once a week.  Dr. Bicknell conducted a DA student survey in 2010 with similar results. From the survey, he found “it is clear students have very different needs regarding frequency of contact. By and large, they seem to be asking for contact to be more on their terms”. While three and half years have past since the survey was conducted, it appears that not much has changed and a combination of texting and phone calls is the norm.

When asked what is most helpful and least helpful when conversing with parents, the answers students gave in the survey were no surprise. Conversations centering around support and encouragement were most helpful, and conversations centering around stress and pressure were least helpful.

Students in Dr. Bicknell’s survey gave examples of DON’TS for parents:

“Don’t call me and tell me you miss me.”

“Don’t continually ask me if I’m OK.”

“Don’t constantly ask ‘how are you these days?’ when I’m stressed out and have a lot of work.”

“Don’t tell me what to do while I am here (bedtime, homework, etc)–the school does plenty of that! ”

Conversations that cause more stress seem to be focused on questions regarding grades, homework, and trying to micromanage the teen’s life at school.

Lucy Baldwin likes when her parents have non-Deerfield related conversations with her.” Hearing news from home is fun!” Lucy Lytle says she likes receiving fun photos of her dogs and silly stories of their adventures–”it’s a nice diversion from the stress and pressure of academics”. One student summed it up by saying “it is helpful to receive support, encouragement, and advice to keep me going and growing into a better person”. Get positive conversations started by asking your teen meaningful questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Don’t begin conversations that attack your teen. Some good conversation starters might be:

“I know things can be hard at times. What is the best way for me to help you when you are stressed (or grumpy, sad, etc)?”

“Sounds like you’re stressed. Please know I am here to talk to you any time.”

“What is your biggest goal this year?”

“What do you worry about the most?”

“What makes you feel better?”

“What do you do to cheer yourself up?”

Then, make sure you listen. Keep your emotions in check–do not get upset with your teen’s answers. Remember, your teen is sharing with you!

Seize the Moment

Often times, sitting down or scheduling a phone call for a heart-to-heart conversation is not effective; a teenager will clam up. He/she will open up when you least expect it. Take advantage of this regardless of what you are doing. Remember to practice reflective or active listening. And ask yourself if you are playing the role of micromanager or consultant. Dr. Bicknell advises, “pay attention to the two strategies–consulting versus managing and being an active listener–these strategies demand that we develop an observant self, an inner witness that asks those important questions–What’s my role in this one? Whose needs are being met?”

Applying these helpful tips with love, respect, and patience will hopefully improve your communication and understanding of each other.  And, if you are lucky enough to Skype with your teen, focus on what your teen is saying to you, practice active listening, and try to ignore the messy room in the background!

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