Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

What We Really Mean When We Say...
An Inside Look at Effective Parent-Teen Communication

by Sydney Satchwill

April 01, 2010

“The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.” -Willa Cather

In today’s parent-teen relationships, there are plenty of pitfalls. In particular, effective communication seems to be a problem. Conveying a thought aloud becomes difficult when a teen says one thing and a parent hears another. So how can parents and teens stay afloat in a sea of ambiguity? Foremost, the answer is openness on both sides.

“I tell my parents everything I do,” says Blair, a junior in high school. “They’re honest with me about everything. They don’t hide stuff from me, and I don’t hide stuff from them.” We teens are constantly reminded of the fact we are still considered children and are given limitations on everything we do. To counteract this, engage in a growing relationship that gives parent and teen equal importance. The type of communication where teens are treated as equals by parents is most effective.

Be home by eleven o’clock. Mow the lawn. Do the dishes. While these seem to be clear, explicit statements, teens still have trouble doing them. When parents ask their teens to complete a task, they do so with the expectation that the task will be done. However, when teens hear these commands, they sometimes interpret them in the wrong way. What can you do to state that what you mean is more than just a parent telling their teen what to do?

Be Specific

Often when demands are given with a tagline, the importance is better communicated. For instance, a teen is more likely to obey a command if there is an ultimatum or explanation on the end: You must take out the trash before you can go out tonight. Clean your room; we’re having company over tonight. A teen’s mind is always swimming with responsibilities. A basic request like “clean out the litter box” may be subconsciously shuffled behind “do history homework” and “call my best friend.” By giving a minor justification behind each chore, the urgency of its completion can be better communicated.

“Me and parents have miscommunications about really dumb stuff,” says Eddy, a high school freshman. “Like what time dinner is, or where they need to pick me up.” In a time when daily agendas are packed full, it is easy for details to get lost in the shuffle. “I’ll say ‘the normal time’ or ‘the normal place,’ and we’ll not be thinking of the same thing,” he continues. “Then we get frustrated with each other.” In this type of situation, the remedy is a dose of clarity. Whenever plans are made, make sure you and your teen are specific with each other. Write down the details, if possible. Both parents and teens lead busy lives with lots of particulars. A dose of directness can counteract miscommunications in stressful schedules.

The Art of Listening

Sometimes teens try to open up to parents and are misunderstood in their intentions. “I’ll try to talk to my mom about how stressed I am or how I’m feeling, but she’ll think I’m complaining or whining when I’m just trying to talk to her,” says Tahlia, a sophomore. “Or sometimes I end up getting a lecture when I just wanted a conversation.” As a parent, if you find yourself having less face time and fewer interactions with your children as they grow older, it can be hard to identify times when you can have open, honest conversation.

Most of the time when your teens share their feelings, it is not to elicit advice. Often we need an audience that can take us seriously to hear our thoughts. Teens don’t always want guidance or a sermon on the dangers of the world. The best listener is one who is not judgmental and offers advice when it is sought. That’s not to say parents have no right to lend their children guidance or instruction. These are years when young adults can benefit from some words of experience.

However, not every issue should be treated as an opportunity to preach. While there are things to be gained from the wisdom a parent can give to a child, just know that the more a parent criticizes or admonishes, the less likely a child is going to open up. If teens are accustomed to their attempts at conversation being received negatively, chances are they won’t speak up any more. To build a bridge between parent and teen, try responding with questions asking more about the viewpoint of the teen.

Finally, one thing all teens know deep down is that being a parent is hard. There are so many things we have to worry about, and we know you have to worry about even more. If you find yourself lost while trying to navigate the sea of ambiguity, clutch tightly to your raft. Most likely, you’ll be thrown a life preserver—that’s the reciprocity of healthy communication.

Sydney Satchwill is 17 years old and goes to North Central High School. Her favorite things include winter, the perfect cup of coffee, and tomfoolery. She aspires to one day fill over 50 diaries.