Teen Talk: Cracking the Communication Code

Ask any parent about their experiences raising teens, and you will no doubt get an earful. The adolescent period is an odd time when our little angels seem to morph into … well, let’s just say non-angels.

Some might suggest, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” But the majority of those who make that statement either have very young kids, or, none at all. The rest of us have no doubt witnessed a transformation in our 12- to 19-year-old children, and the degree to which that makeover occurs can vary from one child to the next. Changes are natural and unavoidable, and rather than attempting to ditch the conflicts, we need to buckle up and navigate the ride.

The most apparent changes are the obvious physical ones — their appearance, the way they dress (or not), and more distinctly, the manner by which they speak. Teenagers seem to communicate in a language of their own, not simply because of their incessant use of the most nouveau slang words, but the way that they process what we, as parents, say to them. A teenager’s stream of logic can often confound even the most educated among us. And the manner by which they talk to us can send us in search of a support group where other equally stumped parents can help us decode teen talk. But if you want to continue the trust and openness that you enjoyed with your child prior to teen-hood, then a few communication adjustments are no doubt in order.

You may find that you and your teen are experiencing more conflict as you communicate during this time. Don’t panic, it has nothing to do with “where you went wrong as a parent.” Your child is developing into an adult and those awkward middle years bring along a variety of turf wars. Those battles can be wide-ranging, from choice of attire, to choice of friends, homework, curfew and entertainment preferences. During those battles, you’ll surely wonder how your child has become such an expert on justice since now most everything appears to be “unfair.”

Teens also seem to curiously equate fairness with independence. The more freedom you give them, the more you are considered to be a “fair” parent. Take away freedom or privilege, and you and your actions are “unfair.” It’s not unusual that teens make demands for more independence, but liberties should be extended based upon maturity levels. And, don’t be surprised that your parenting skills are suddenly contrasted to those of Sally’s parents down the street (who seemingly don’t give a flip about where she is at three a.m.). Yet the need for autonomy undeniably begins to happen at this age and in order for a teen to establish a sense of independence he or she may often push away the people they have been dependent upon all their life. So don’t take it personal when your once-adoring child appears to be pulling away from you. They want the same “freedoms” that they perceive their friends enjoy.

Teenagers are under more pressure now than ever before to keep up with their friends. Stress is felt from many angles: a very competitive school environment, peer pressures, and the natural tensions that come with puberty and increasing sexuality. They can be confused about the future and often focus on their inadequacies and weaknesses. They face temptations with drugs and alcohol, tobacco and sexual promiscuity, and although they may not admit it, they really need parental support. Don’t wait for a crisis; make the time to talk with to your teen before problems arise.
Give your young person the opportunity to have your undivided attention as you listen intently to what he or she says to you. Don’t fear that you will give up ground as a parent by giving your teen a chance to express her needs and concerns, because if she doesn’t feel as though she have a voice, she will tune you out anyway. The most common complaint that teens express about conversations with parents is that they feel they are misunderstood or not heard. You must still exercise parental authority, but make sure your young person feels that he or she has been heard.

When talking to your teen, steer clear of mixed or vague messages. Clarity and consistency is key when you want your teenager to understand what you’re saying. In addition, help them to understand your perspective. The “because I said so” retort works in theory simply because you’re the parent and hence, the ultimate authority, and your kids know it. But it is not very effective with our savvy, 21st century, information-seeking pre-adults. In order for them to respect your point of view, they need to comprehend the message, even if they don’t agree with it.

A teenager’s reasoning or point of view may sound ludicrous to you. It always helps to rephrase and clarify what you believe he or she may be saying to be sure you have accurately deciphered the essence of the message. Try to repeat it in your own words to verify that you understand what he or she is saying. You may be met with a “you just don’t get it,” or the standard, “whatever,” but don’t get frustrated, and keep at it. State that your purpose is to build understanding and to be supportive, not to accuse or punish. Use that non-threatening “I” statement freely: “I don’t understand what you’re telling me, can you re-phrase it?” or, “I am concerned about what might happen.” These statements convey a personal and valid interest and are more effective than saying, “you always make the same mistakes!”

In addition to avoiding those offensive “you” messages, parents should also weave away from demanding a discussion when a teen is clearly not interested in talking. If your teen doesn’t want to engage in conversation, back off for a while. This strategy can help to disarm them while allowing them the time to rethink their views or behaviors. Try again in a few hours or days if needed, and you may find a better opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Definitely don’t surrender the discussion, especially if it involves a significant matter. Timing is everything when it comes to connecting with a teenager.

And speaking of time, just because your child is now a semi-adult, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share those nostalgic “mommy and me” moments. Do things together as a family since those are the special times that can lead to great conversations. You want your teen to feel as though he or she is worthy of your time and that you are actually still enjoyable to hang out with!

Relish the years spent with your teen … you only have a few left before they flee the nest to make it on their own. These years can be bittersweet — challenging, yet gratifying. Make the most of the time spent together and be sure that much of it is allotted to respectful conversation. And, if you forget all the preceding advice, hold on to this: tell your teen how loved and valued he or she is each day. Because unless they grasp that message, they won’t hear anything else.

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