In my clinical work with troubled teenagers, it is often the case that there is a real communication breakdown between these adolescents and their parents. These teens often feel that their parents do not understand or respect them, do not listen to what they have to say, and cannot relate to their experiences. They may report feeling isolated and closed off from their families, rejected, hurt, angry, anxious, sad, and lonely. In general, these adolescents have built up a “protective wall” between them and their parents (and sometimes the rest of the adult world) behind which they retreat. Because of problems with trust, these teens do not easily let their walls come down or let others see their vulnerabilities and insecurities.
It is important for you, as a parent, to keep the communication doors open with your teen. There are steps you can take to help maintain open communication. While it is normal and to be expected that your teenager will increasingly want to spend more time with their friends outside the home, they still need you to continue to “be there” for them and to provide guidance, advice, security, and support.
7 Tips on How to Effectively Keep the Lines of Communication Open:
Take advantage of the time you have alone with your child or teen in daily activities. For example, car rides to or from school are great opportunities to strike up a conversation.
Set aside some one-on-one time for your teen. Consider scheduling a “coffee date” or “lunch date” with your teen. Invite your teen to choose an activity that they might enjoy participating in with you (e.g., play tennis, go skiing, take a brisk walk, go shopping, bake cookies or cook a meal, get manicures or pedicures, go bike riding or rollerblading, attend a yoga class, etc). Use this activity as an opportunity to enjoy being together, to laugh and have fun, and to really listen to your teen.
Eat supper as a family. Dinner time allows you to ‘check in’ with each other and is the perfect time to share about the day. Too often I hear about families that never sit down for a meal together. Sometimes the television is on in the background, the iPods or iPads are at the table, and the telephone rings. Consider making it a rule of no electronics or technology during dinner. Encourage each family member to have a turn sharing two or three positive things about their day.
Engage in active listening with your teen. Repeat and reflect back what your teen tells you to make sure you have understood their point of view. This step is very important for validating feelings. That is, try to put yourself in your teen’s shoes. Validation does not mean that you are giving in to all of their demands and requests, but rather that you are doing your best to hear what they are saying, understand their perspective, and empathize with their feelings.
Remember to ask questions and to be clear about your expectations. While your teen may balk at being interrogated and asked a ton of questions, it is important that you have the answers to the basics, such as where they are, what they are doing, who they are with, and what time they will be home. Show interest in your teenager’s friends and encourage your teen to invite their friends to your home so you can meet them.
Praise your teenager and acknowledge their efforts, contributions, and accomplishments. We all want to feel appreciated for what we do. Describe what you are proud of that your teen did (e.g., “I am so pleased with your math test results. It shows me how hard you tried”). Try to describe what you see (e.g., “Thanks for remembering to take out the garbage before I had to ask you”) and what you feel (e.g., “I really enjoyed the cookies you baked”).
Find the middle ground. Try to let go of needing to be right. Sometimes you need to be flexible and to be willing to negotiate with your teen. Engage in problem-solving together where you brainstorm solutions. Do your best to discuss differences of opinion and to come to some agreement that you can both follow. Keep your word and avoid, if at all possible, breaking your promises.
In short, find and create opportunities to connect with your teen, to take interest in their lives, and be open to discussing differences of perspective. And remember to say what you mean and to mean what you say!
Importantly, pay attention to any changes (especially drastic ones) you notice in your teen’s behaviour and moods. If you observe that they are acting very differently than usual (e.g., withdrawing into their room for hours, are much quieter than before, avoiding friends, behaving more defiantly and aggressively, missing many days of school, complaining of inability to sleep, crying often, etc.) and you are concerned about what you are seeing, I would strongly encourage you to seek professional help. For more information on whether your adolescent may have a mental health problem, you can read this article from the Douglas Hospital’s website.