By: Jan Hamilton, MS, PMHNP-BC
Every parent who has ever had a teenager understands this feeling. It is a topic I get asked about a lot and a frequent topic in family therapy. As teenagers grow, one of the fundamental changes they are making is the formulation of their own identity, separate and distinct from that of their parents. In former centuries, this change more closely coincided with actual changes in circumstances as well, like getting married, striking out on their own, or taking on more adult responsibilities. Even so, there were probably quite a few shouting matches and just as much misunderstanding between parents and their teenagers as there is today.
Communication is the key to helping our teenagers navigate the often rocky path between childhood and adulthood. Unfortunately, the very nature of that change creates significant challenges and barriers to communication. In order to keep the communication channels open, parents need to take charge of keeping them clear. Here are 6 things that will help you communicate better with your teen.
1. Communication is more than Words
Remember that there is more to communicating than just the words that come out of your mouth. Your teenager is attuned to the subtle and silent messages you send with your body language and the tone of your voice. If these messages don’t match, your child will interpret what they think you really mean and respond accordingly.
2. Watch What You Say
Most teenagers have heard what you are about to say a hundred times. They can tell by the circumstances, your body language, and the tone of your voice what is coming and if it is old news or an unwelcome message, they may tune it out. Pay attention to all the messages you are sending and look for ways to impart the same message without wandering into a well-known battlefield.
Communication is not just about talking or educating the other person or convincing them that your point of view is right. Communication is about a two-way exchange. You need to learn to listen, to truly listen, to what your teen is saying before you can learn to communicate with them. Too often, parents tune out their kids as well, only hearing the things they want to hear or using the time their child is talking to think about what they are going to say next. Listening to your teenager is the most empowering thing you can do.
4. Trust Your Parenting
Trust in the foundation you provided them and give them room to make choices, fail, and then learn from their mistakes. Believe in the guidance and education you instilled in them. Don’t lecture. Focus on listening and allow them to make decisions for themselves. Bolster their belief in themselves by showing them you believe in their ability to make good decisions.
5. Be a Curious Observer
One of the reasons teenagers feel so misunderstood is that their lives, bodies, hormones, and relationships are in a constant state of flux. You can help them through these challenges by providing validation that they are OK, that they are good people, and that what they are going through is normal. To do this, you must be curious about their lives, ask open-ended questions, and then listen to what they have to say. But you must only be an observer; you cannot force openness and you shouldn’t use curiosity to spy or pry into their lives.
6. Watch Out for Transference
Remember that your child is not you. If you have issues to work through, take the initiative and work through them yourself, don’t assume your child is going down the same path you did or that they will make the same mistakes you made. You don’t want to limit their freedom to find their own path, make their own mistakes, and learn to live with the consequences that result because of your own fears or guilt about your past. The healthier you are, the better you are able to let go when you need to.
About Jan Hamilton, MS, PMHNP-BC
Jan is a nationally Board Certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner who specializes in adolescent treatment. She earned her Master’s of Science and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner certification through the University of Arizona. She then worked for over eight years at Remuda Ranch providing inpatient services for adolescents and adults suffering from eating disorders. Jan has been a registered nurse for 31 years and worked in a wide variety of medical settings, including 30 years of serving young people through her work with Young Life, an interdenominational outreach program. Her desire to provide quality psychological and psychiatric care for adolescents and young adults in an outpatient, faith based setting has led to the opening of Doorways in 2008.