Improving Communication

Parents sometimes find that their teen-ager is not eager to talk with them. All they get are one word answers. Their youngster is non-communicative, blatantly declaring that "I just can't talk to you, anyway I'd rather watch TV." Teen-agers are very perceptive as well as suspicious. They often think their parents want to pry into their personal lives or "get the goods on them." Questions are viewed, sometimes correctly, in this light, but sometimes incorrectly.

How can a parent get around this? First, be sure your motive is just talking - not prying. Second, instead of asking questions, just talk about yourself--share some of your thoughts and ideas without trying to get any information from your son or daughter. A mother in a parenting workshop once said: "Every day I used to ask my son how school was. All I ever got back was 'fine.' I tried using this new approach. I would just start talking about my day - news that might interest him or funny stories or maybe a little gossip. Before I knew it, he was telling me things that had happened in school and we were having a real conversation."

 

Encourage a Response

Another way to initiate discussion is by commenting on how your daughter appears, leaving her an opening to respond. For example: your thirteen year old walks into the house looking morose and uncommunicative. You say, "You look really upset." She responds, "I am. Life stinks." You reply "Something must have happened that makes you feel so bad." This approach avoids turning silence or hesitancy to talk into a power struggle - a guaranteed dead end. The key here is that no demand is placed on the youngster to speak. She has the freedom to decide whether or not to communicate.

Sometimes parents unknowingly communicate to their child that no verbal exchange is either necessary or desirable. These kind of statements can deter or completely stop communication:

Teen-ager: "I feel like such a loser."
Parent: "There's no reason to feel that way. You have a lot going for you."

Teen-ager: "I'm afraid to go to school. I'm new - what if no one likes me."
Parent: "Don't be silly, of course they'll like you."

Teen-ager: "I'm so ugly. I hate my face."
Parent: "That's ridiculous. You're very attractive."

Teen-ager: "I wish I had more friends. I feel so lonely."
Parent: "That's because you don't know how to make friends."

Let's examine the common themes in these exchanges. In these exchanges, the parent does not acknowledge the validity of the teen's feelings. In an attempt to help him feel better, the parent tries to talk him out of his feelings by minimizing or dismissing them. The result is that the teen feels misunderstood, foolish, or angry. He no doubt wishes that he had never raised the issue.

A Better Way

There are alternative ways of responding. Keys to better communication include:

Acknowledge the speaker's feelings. "I know you feel afraid."
Give empathy. "It's hard being new in school. I'd find it difficult myself."
Provide support. "I think you'll do fine. You have a nice way with your peers."
What do you do if you don't feel empathic and understanding when your son or daughter expresses feelings, but experience anger and frustration instead? In a family session once, a youngster was talking about her fears. The father turned to the therapist and said: "I feel so mean. I should be sympathetic, but I'm not. I get so angry when she says those things I just want to yell at her."

There is no simple solution to the dilemma this father expressed, but there are a few beginning steps to take. First, acknowledge your feelings to yourself. The father in the example had the awareness and courage to know and state his feelings. Next, ask yourself "Why am I angry?" or, more generally, "Why do I feel this way?"

Several possible reasons that you may have feelings as a parent that you are uncomfortable with include:

You don't believe your daughter really feels or believes what he is saying. Perhaps you think she is trying to manipulate you.
No matter what you say, it never seems to help. You feel inadequate and powerless.
You're afraid that if your daughter really feels that way it will hinder her growth.
You're guilty. You feel anything your teen-ager says or feels is going to be is your responsibility.

If It Doesn't Work - Change It

Knowing what you feel and why you respond the way you do is a first step to changing a pattern that doesn't work. The father described above felt threatened by words that he heard as statements about himself. His initial desire was to make his son be different so he himself would feel okay. Once he was able to acknowledge this and speak about it, communication opened. The family session then continued in this manner: Son: "I know you get mad every time I talk about why I feel lousy. That's why I never want to say anything to you. It's like you hate me." Father: "I don't hate you. I love you. It's just that I sometimes feel like such a failure as a father." Son: "But I don't feel lousy because of you - it's about me."

This teenage boy and his father were on the road to building a bridge between them. As is true with all families, patterns of communication that don't work can be changed. Once you can identify the problem, the solution is close at hand.