Here are 5 Ways to Improve Your Communication
It’s easy to fall into negative communication patterns with teens, even when we’re trying our very best to be understanding and loving. As parents, we don’t want to be unreasonable, but we don’t want to be doormats, either. This can set us up for engaging in unproductive power struggles and making inaccurate assumptions.
One thing that helps me when I’m struggling to communicate with a teen is to think about our situation from a neurological standpoint. Many of us are aware that the teen brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-to-late twenties.
In fact, research has found that adults tend to process information with the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the part that uses good judgment and has awareness of long-term consequences), whereas teens tend to process information with the amygdala ( the emotional part).
That’s why it’s so hard for us to understand each other when we disagree! Yet we (myself included) often forget to remember this when we’re in the heat of an argument with a teen.
Here are a few strategies that I use to improve my communication with teens in my practice, family, and in other aspects of my life:
1. Practice reflective listening with your teen
This is a communication strategy in which you seek to understand someone’s perspective by paraphrasing it back to them. One really important thing to remember is that you need to be genuine or the strategy will fall flat.
Here’s an example of reflexive listening:
Let’s say your teen wants to borrow the car even though he brought the car back past curfew earlier in the week. One way to practice reflective listening is to say something to them like, “From what I understand, you would like to use the car tonight to meet your friends at the movies, is that correct?” You DON’T need to add your perspective at this point. Instead, just summarize what you believe your teen is communicating to you without judgment.
How does this help, you may ask? For one, it allows you both a chance to regroup. It also gives your teen an opportunity to clarify if you’ve misunderstood something. Finally, it shows your teen that you’re interested in understanding their thoughts and feelings.
2. Use Empathy
Empathy is a powerful parenting tool with teens. Going with the scenario above, if I’ve practiced reflexive listening with my teen, yet plan to maintain the boundary I had set (e.g., if you bring it home past curfew, you can’t drive it again that weekend), I may add some empathy at this point in our discussion.
For example, I may say something like, “I know you really want to use the car tonight. This must be very frustrating because you really want to meet your friends at the movies.”
3. Maintain Clear Boundaries, particularly about the Big Stuff
What do I mean by big stuff? Driving, drinking, family values, things like that. In my opinion, bringing the car back after curfew is in the “big stuff” category. So if your rule is that your teen loses driving privileges for the weekend if they bring the car home late, then stick with your rule. This will give your teen a healthy respect for other’s property and help you maintain your integrity as a parent. Boundaries also help teens develop a sense of confidence. Don’t expect them to understand this now. It will come later in life.
4. Focus on Areas of Progress
One strategy that I often use with teens during stressful discussions is to point out their areas of progress.
For example, with the car situation, a simple comment like, “I’m proud of how responsible you’ve become with your school work. Last week at conferences, Mrs. Johnson said that you had turned in all of your work on time this semester. I know you’ll handle this curfew stuff, too. ”No worries if your teen tries to use your compliment against you (“If you’re so proud of me, why won’t you let me use the car tonight. I promise I’ll be home on time.”).
The point is, your teen will know you see their progress and that you believe in them.
5. Stop Repeating Yourself
One trap that we all fall into as parents is to repeat ourselves instead of disengaging from the conflict. My husband says this is one of my biggest parental (and marital!) challenges. He’s right. But I have made progress.
One thing that helps me disengage is to have an exit plan before the discussion even starts. For example, if you and your teen are in conflict about something in the “big stuff” category and you plan to maintain your boundary, use the first four strategies listed in this blog, and then politely excuse yourself.
I’m most successful when I actually leave the house. My exit plans often involve taking a walk, going on an errand (Target is one of my favorite decompression zones), or even calling a friend from the car to vent. If you can’t leave the house (e.g., it’s midnight, you’re a single parent and have young children at home), try to leave the area (e.g., go to your bedroom and close the door).
That’s all for now:)
Just remember….you are not alone.
And with hard work, parenting gets easier.
Just like American poet, Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Your friend and support,Katherine Quie