Many of the challenges in parent-teen relationships are rooted in poor communication. Dependence on assumptions and lack of clarity are significant barriers to effective communication. Eliminating your barriers in communication can profoundly impact your relationship with your teen. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
What is communication? Traditionally being a good communicator has meant that we “know the right words to say when the moment arrives.” Unfortunately, this definition of communication has been outdated for several decades. In my interpretation, communication is “the totality of the understanding that develops out of any encounter between human beings.”
Thus, communication includes the emotions produced, what is heard and understood, not just what is said, but also the visceral responses of both people’s bodies and countless other nuances. As you can imagine, communication on this level is not just what you say but the tone of your voice, the look in your eyes, and the way you are standing. It is ‘full contact communication’ and cannot be faked.
For instance, let’s say your teen is hiding information from you about something they did. If they believe that you will be angry if they reveal it to you, they will feel fear and resist telling you to avoid punishment. If they believe that they have violated the rules of the family, then they will experience shame and will do things to avoid being exposed. If they believe that they have violated their standards, they will experience guilt and do things to punish themselves. All these emotions, fear, shame, and guilt, may act as barriers to communication. However, the messages from each of those emotions are different. On the other hand, if they believe that you are a sincere, reliable, and a competent parent, they will more likely feel the emotion of trust and reveal things to you without concern.
One mistake many parents make is solely listening to the language used by teens. For example, if a teen yells at their parents and says, “I hate you,” the parent may take the words literally. The parents may feel disappointed or offended and feel they are doing a thankless job because they have put a sincere effort into raising their child. If we listen only to the words being expressed, what is often missing is the emotion generating those words and the way the teen’s body is animated by that emotion. It could be the teen is feeling frustration or irritation. If so, the underlying message is not that the teen hates their parent, even though that is the word used. In other words, when you step into the role of your teen’s coach, you must actively listen to their words and be aware of the emotions and body language associated with their words.