Wondering how you can talk better with your teenage kids? The art and science of teenage communication can be hard for parents to master at first but, it is possible. And once you master the necessary skills, it would make a world of difference in your relationship with them.
“I haven’t said the right thing in the past two years,” said one dad at a recent workshop of mine.
He was talking about a problem that many parents of teenagers can relate to — the seemingly endless opportunities for miscommunication.
The teen years can feel like the options for connection are either nagging, interrogating, or talking through a closed door. Is communication a lost cause? I don’t think so.
Once you understand what causes communication problems between teens and their parents, you’ll be surprised how easily you can avoid power struggles and stay connected.
Many parents are frustrated by their teens for not listening and being disrespectful. Some parents report that asking their teens to do something simple — like taking out the garbage or getting off their screens — leads to a full-on battle.
From the teen perspective, communication problems are often caused by their parents’ tendency to fix things instead of just listening.
A girl I worked with recently relayed this:
“My mom is into meditation, so we all have to be into meditation. When I am freaking out, she tells me to take deep breaths! When I’m at a 10! Instead of just letting me vent, she immediately wants me to stop feeling what feels beyond my control.”
Both the parent and the teen have a point. Teens do have wild emotions, which makes communication that much more challenging. And parents are accustomed to being in fixer mode, robbing their teens the chance to vent.
So what causes communication problems between parents and teens?
Mainly, all the different developmental changes happening in the teen years. The teen body is chaotic — changes are happening neurologically, psychologically, and biologically.
In this chaotic moment, parents need better and more effective communication skills if they want to stay connected to their teens.
Here are 6 common reasons for miscommunication between you and your teen and some parenting advice on how to communicate effectively with them.
1. Teens live in the present
It’s essential to understand that at least some of what is going on here is a developmental thing. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of their brain linked to planning and scheduling, is still under construction in the teen years.
For adults, a child’s behavior from two weeks ago is still relevant, but in the teen’s perception, they have moved on. Two weeks ago might as well have been a year ago!
Likewise, when we bring up the future, as in, “How are you going to get into college with grades like that?”, it’s falling on deaf ears. When you try to motivate a teen by referencing how their future selves can be improved, expect an eye-roll, or be told to back off.
Parenting tip: If you want to communicate better, embrace that your teen does not live on the same timeline as you do. Bonus points if you can see the beauty in their vibrancy. More bonus points if you can join them in their timeline now and then.
If not, do your best to keep things concrete and in the here and now. Talk about this week and maybe next.
2. Teens are ruled by emotions
Back to brain development, in the adolescent years, teens are governed by the emotional structures of the brain. These are housed in the limbic system.
The CEO of the limbic system is the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is a structure that is used to interpret danger. I mean this literally — the amygdala that used to perceive a threat from a tiger is now on the prowl for other risks, like your too-long look at your teen’s pimply face!
Without a developed, rational prefrontal cortex to keep the amygdala in check, emotions run high.
Brain scans show us the impact that this “voice” has on teens. When presented with a stimulus that is unremarkable in both children and adults, the teen amygdala lights up. Where we hear a chime, they hear a gong.
Parenting tip: If you are trying to rationalize with your teen in this state, it’s useless. Instead of trying to communicate, remind yourself, “This is the amygdala speaking” and wait until your teen’s emotions have simmered down.
3. Teens are incredible observers and terrible interpreters
Teens notice subtle body language and change in tone, but because their brains are on high alert, they tend to misinterpret the meaning.
One of my clients said to her daughter, with maybe a hint of concern, “Who is driving to the concert?” and her daughter responded, “Why don’t you trust me?!” She detected something in her mother’s tone, but she jumped to the worst conclusion.
Parenting tip: The book Voice Lessons by Dr. Wendy Mogelis is full of tips about how to communicate with kids at any age and keep their development in mind. If you don’t read it, keep in mind that teens are keen detectors of judgment.
Judgment speaks louder than any praise.