The key to building a positive relationship and sorting out any communication difficulties with your teenager is to keep the channels of communication open.
Connecting with your teen
We tend to consider the importance of big talks about significant topics with teens, but the ability to connect when it really matters is often based on the ability to connect when it doesn't. The way you relate to them in day-to-day life will make it easier - or harder - to sort out the key issues.
We can get locked into unhelpful ways of communicating - bickering, nagging, criticising - that once we're in are hard to avoid. Your teenager may still need your guidance and the boundaries that you draw and hold, but you may have to get tactical to get this across. How you assert your authority may need to be different when dealing with an authority-averse teen rather than an automatically respectful child.
Your teenager still needs to know you are interested but watchful, that you care and are on their side, even if you don't always agree with them. You need to have the skill and the emotional resilience to go on offering help, even in the face of indifference and opposition.
Improving your communication skills
You can reduce the amount of indifference and opposition from your teenager if you improve your skills. Teenagers often behave in ways which make it difficult for us to give them what they need most - love and acceptance. You can't change your teenager, but you can change what you do - and how you behave differently, it often results in the other person matching you and altering their behaviour themselves.
How can you keep the communication open?
If you want to keep lines of communication open with your teenager, what should you be doing? It can help if you:
- look for opportunities to talk off-message
- use 'I' messages
- use open questions
- share something of yourself
- treat the young person as an equal
- practise what you preach
- listen without judgement or criticism
- appreciate them for their positive qualities
- give unconditional love but hold strong boundaries over behaviour
- give frequent 'strokes'
- include the young person in family activities but give them the choice to opt out
- understand and take action only when asked for help
Often as a parent you're so aware of what you see as the important issues you want to discuss with your teenager - unsuitable friends, doing homework, playing loud music - that you forget to simply pass the time with them. If your teenager knows that every conversation with you means a lecture on something, they're going to avoid them. Some surveys show that the majority of exchanges between parents and their children entirely involve complaints and rebukes. Some teens say the only time their parents talk to them is to tell them off. But if they're used to chatting to you about fun stuff, inconsequential stuff, things they're interested in and doing, they'll stop and tune in and be relaxed with you. Then, when you do want to discuss something important or ask them to do something differently, they're likely to listen.
Use 'I' messages
If there is an issue you're concerned about, it isn't always effective to broach it with a 'you' message: 'you left the kitchen in a mess'. Instead try, 'I was upset this morning to find the kitchen in a mess because I had to tidy it up before I could make breakfast. Next time, please clear up after yourself. Thanks.'
Use open questions
Using open questions is another vital tool in making communicating with teenagers easier. A closed question stops communication rather than starts it, questions you can answer with a yes or no, such as 'are you going out?, 'do you have homework?' Closed questions only need a short answer and don't give the opportunity to say any more. Closed questions can suggest or even tell the person what you want them to hear. 'Did you have a good time at school today?' implies that you expect them to have enjoyed school. When we use closed questions as a way of making a criticism - about their appearance, behaviour, attitude - it's quite clear the question isn't to be answered, but swallowed. And it's often a quick step to an argument.
Instead, try an opener instead. An opener carries with it a different messages, one that says, 'Tell me more, I'm interested and listening.' Some examples of open questions are, 'Tell me about your day', 'You seem fed up/happy, tell me about it.'
If you want your teenager to feel relaxed and happy about sharing their concerns and feelings with you, it helps to be open yourself. This doesn't mean off loading your teenager with worries that would frighten them or be inappropriate for them to know. Young people look to parents to be in control and all-knowing. As they become teenagers, if you keep up a facade of never having problems yourself, barriers may emerge between you and your teenager. They may begin to feel incompetent - that they have all these worries which no one else seems to share, they may think that you don't share their feelings and therefore can't appreciate them. When your teenager shouts 'You don't understand', they are often speaking from the heart and really feel you can't understand what they are going through. A third barrier may arise if they know that you have as many anxieties as they do but won't admit it and they are unwilling to open up to you because they see you as insincere, hypocritical and in denial.
Treat them as an equal
You may still feel that your teenager is not experienced enough to cope on their own, but one day soon they will be. Treating a teenager as an equal does not make them arrogant or out of control. On the contrary, it gives them every incentive to live up to your trust. Part of this is accepting that you and they may have different views, beliefs and opinions, which isn't always easy for parents. Your teenager may well end up with similar ideas to your, but while they are an adolescent, trying everything out, they may well diverge and stay that way. Get used to it and embrace it. You have friends who disagree with you on all sorts of things but you still like and respect them. You can do so with your own child too.
Practise what you preach
One way to lose your teenager's trust or belief is to tell them to do one thing while breaking the rules yourself. Lectures on alcohol and drugs may fall on deaf ears if you drink and partake, even if you think it's different. They may reject your advice on the grounds that you do it too. They may also decide that since you ignore your own rules on one issues that they can ignore what you say about other things too. Modelling good behaviour to them will always be more effective than preaching it.
Listening without judgement or criticism
As parents we feel that we have to guide, instruct and inform to do our job properly. Seeing parenting as a job where you are in charge gives you a vested interest in feeling you can solve any difficulties experienced by your teenager. You tend to think their inexperience is the same as them not being competent or capable. Standing by and letting them find their own solutions to problems may leave you feeling anxious and angry. It may be a source of pride that you know best and make decisions for them which means you get upset and angry when they complain or resist your help or advice.
What you need to do is give them the same support that you would a friend - simply listen without passing comment, without making judgements or offering criticism. Sometimes you need to give your teenager exactly the respect and behaviour you'd give a friend. Judging, blaming, criticising and labelling can destroy self-esteem and cause distance between you and your teenager. It can increase conflict and make them unwilling to cooperate.
Appreciate your teenager for their positive qualities
We can all find things we dislike about our teenagers: their messy rooms, treating the house like a hotel and they spend too much time on the phone or their computer. But if that's all you see, you may find it hard to get on. What helps is to make the positive effort to see what you like about them: their enthusiasm and liveliness, their kindness and concern, their sense of humour. Look for the positives and remind yourself of these every time you're tempted to be angry or upset with them over something you feel they've done or not done.
Give unconditional love but hold strong boundaries over behaviour
Your teenager needs to know that you love them, no matter what. But that is not the same thing as condoning, accepting or allowing their behaviour. When you find yourself in conflict with your teen it helps to remember that it's the behaviour, not the teenager, you may not like. And it's the behaviour not the teenager you may want to address. Much of the time the things they get up to are normal behaviour for their age and development. But there are obviously times when you need to address it. Read more about setting boundaries for teenagers.
The key to being effective is not to make it personal. Be specific and avoid labels and make your requests clear. Say, 'You left your coat on the floor. I don't appreciate having to tidy up after you. Next time, please put your coat in the cupboard.' This works far more effectively than, 'You're so messy! What am I going to do with you? I'm not your servant, you know!'
With the second approach, the teenager is told what they are - messy. No way for them to change; they're labelled and judged. Why try to do anything to please you when it's clear you've made up your mind about who and what they are? And by not mentioning what it is that has upset you, the teenager may not even understand what they have done wrong.
With the first approach, the teenager is told exactly what upset you and why and is given a clear request of what to do to remedy the situation.
The power of praise
We all need to be rewarded, to be praised and thanked and appreciated. Sometimes we forget how much we need to value others and to be valued by them. Counsellors call the sort of action that gives a lift to morale 'a stroke'. Strokes can be spoken - telling someone that you love them, thanking them for helping you or saying that you value them. Or they can be shown by contact - hugging or kissing someone or giving them a back rub. Or they can be acted out - making them a cup of tea, giving them a small present or doing a chore you know they'd like done. Sit down and think about the strokes you think your teenager would like to receive, or what you'd like to give. Check out the ones you could give - try them out or as your teenager if they'd like them. Also tell them what you'd appreciate. Keep the communication going by agreeing to give each other at least one stroke a day.
Include them in family activities but with the option to opt out
Teenage years are really the time when young people begin to have their own social life that they manage themselves, that includes friends and contacts they've made and often excludes you. It's the time when family activities may become deeply embarrassing - they don't want to seem a 'Billy No Mates', reduced to socialising or going out with family. Even if embarrassment isn't a factor, they may not want to miss out on anything their friends are doing.
But teenagers can surprise you and if you assume they want nothing more to do with family events and leave them out, they may be hurt and rejected. If given free choice, you may well find they include themselves in family activities more than you'd expect. If you pressurise, the result may be conflict and arguments. They may make a stand by cutting off communication and staying away just to make a point, rather than because that would have been their original preference.
Understand and take action only when asked for help
Communication with teenagers is boosted tremendously when they feel you understand them and what they are going through, and it rises to a new level when they trust you to butt out when necessary. There are times when they may want you to intervene and there will obviously be times when they want you to give advice and support. But in both cases, the relationship will be better and the invitation to help more likely if they know you will wait for the request, not jump in or assume it's your right and your place to do so.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.