Sitting in the room with teen and his parents can be a painful experience. Parents and teens come in to the clinic requesting advice and the scenes start the same: Parents start talking, expressing their opinions and worries about their teens. He’s failing classes. She slams doors. He misses curfew. She gets caught in lies. As the minutes tick by, the teen shrinks back into his or her chair. The head falls down toward the floor. The knees come up to the chest. The head turns away, maybe looking out the window toward the parking lot, probably drifting away toward some imaginary place that’s more tolerable.
Often, the parent glances over toward the teen and gestures for my benefit. See? She’s always like this. Withdrawn, non-communicative. There is obviously something really wrong with my teenager.
Just before the teen disappears in a *poof of frustration, I ask the parent to exit the room. We start to talk.
“What do you think about what your parents said?”
“I don’t know. Some of it’s true, some is not.”
“You get frustrated hearing them talk about you like that?”
“Yep. I hate it when they talk to me, about me…”
“Is it always like this when you and your parents talk?”
What makes conversations between parents and their teens (or quite often tweens or young adults) so hard, and what can parents do to make them easier? What distinguishes the unsuccessful interactions from the ones that feel less frustrating, or more productive?
Here are the top complaints from teens about trying to communicate with their parents:
Parents not listening
Sometimes teens have something to say, and limited experience getting the words to come out right. They are the ones in the conversation that, if misunderstood, might get punished. They try to say a few words, and the parent responds with “go do your homework” or “I know already” and the conversation is over. Opportunity missed.
Instead, parents could pause a moment when your teen talks and make sure you understand what’s being said before responding.
Sarcastic parental remarks
Snarky comments don’t make good parenting tools. Parenting is a frustrating business, but expressing your frustrations through sarcastic comments toward your teen won’t open up the lines of communication.
Instead, parents could communicate what you want your teen to know and why using direct, straight forward language.
Nagging Moms and Dads
Harassing teens to clean their rooms or finish their homework, while common practice, isn’t very productive. Hearing the same requests over and over without any additional information (or action) ensures that parents will be tuned-out.
Instead, parents could makes rules, establish clear consequences, and take the action you said you would take if your teen doesn’t follow the rules.
Parents may assume they know any number of things from a teens thoughts and feelings to the character of his or her friends. But assuming you know the answer means you’ve already stopped listening.
Instead, parents could approach conversations with your teen with an open mind. You might learn something.
Parents who jump to conclusions
Past experience can help you understand a current situation, oftentimes accurately. But sometimes a situation isn’t like the last time. Maybe your child really turned in an assignment and it was lost by the teacher. Before closing your mind, it’s important to hear all the facts.
Instead, parents could try suspending judgment until all the facts are in. Maybe your initial impressions will be correct, or maybe this time it’s different.
Parents may not recognize it, but sometimes it’s not just the kids who whine. Parental tone can take on the same fussy, complaining, singsong “whah!” quality that kids use. Talking in a whining tone to kids is frustrating and undermines the message.
Instead, parents could use and even tone. You’ll get your message across more effectively.
Parents that enable
Enabling means letting teens get away with doing the wrong thing, and perhaps surprisingly, they don’t like it. Teens need to be held accountable, and they feel best in the parent-teen relationship when they can count on being held to a fair standard.
Instead, parents could address your teen’s problem behaviors head-on. While your teen isn’t always in the wrong, if he or she is out of line, take action and don’t cover up their mistakes.