“My parents just don’t understand me.”
“My kid doesn’t listen to anything I say!”
“My mom’s always yelling at me.”
“I have to tell him 5,000 times, and he still doesn’t do anything!”
“I get in trouble for everything!”
“I give one simple rule, and she can’t even follow it.”
Sound familiar? These are the kinds of statements we often hear from teens and their parents in the therapy room. Teens and parents can feel like they are speaking two entirely different languages with no translator, and the end result is that everybody ends up frustrated, hurt and unheard or misunderstood.
On a developmental and biological level, there’s something deeper going on here. Teens are developing their sense of abstract thinking. They’re exploring their own values and identities, and they’re questioning the world around them. As you well know, they’re realizing that adults (especially parents) are not superheroes and do not have all the answers. They may push back against the family practices they’ve always followed, or they may assert their own views about the world, either of which may drive you completely insane and leave you wondering, “Who is this person?” They may seem lazy and unmotivated, in large part because their brains on hyper-focused on their areas of interest and are programmed not to care about much else during this time. Naturally, this can drive parents nuts!
Even biologically, teens’ bodies are also telling them to push back because it makes it easier for them to leave the nest and go out on their own (to eventually procreate—but please, no need to have a heart attack here. J That’s just biological drives speaking.) If your kid was super easy to get along with, it would be that much harder for them to leave your home and move on into the world.
So, yes, there are the reasons why you never seem to understand each other. But how can you bridge the seemingly enormous gap?
- Slow down. Many times conversations escalate to arguments because neither person is really listening to the other. It may be that you’ve had this dialogue 500 times before and you know exactly what the other person is going to say or that it’s an emotional topic and everybody’s on edge already. No matter the contributing factors, it can be really, really helpful to slow down the pace. Try a technique called mirroring and reflecting. To do this, explain that you want to make sure you understand each other by taking turns listening and then summarizing what was said back to make sure you understood correctly. When summarizing, focus on capturing the content of what was said and then check in to make sure you understood correctly. For example, if you’re talking to your teen, and they say, “You never listen to me! You’re always nagging me! You don’t let anything go!” (This is the kind of comment that could lead to an argument in 0-60, so take a breath first.) Then, you could summarize by saying, “You don’t feel heard, and you think I nag a lot. Is that right?” Next, you get to respond (calmly) and gently remind your teen to summarize what they hear you say too. Yep, this feels awkward and unnatural, but it can be a good way to change the old patterns we get stuck in. This is also a good skill for your teen to develop for future relationships!
- Connect and redirect. This is a technique named and recommended by prominent child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dan Siegel. (By the way, I highly recommend his book Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain.) Connect refers to first connecting with the emotion your child or teen is expressing. In the above example, this might be, “You sound really frustrated and overwhelmed.” If your teen agrees, then asking them to tell you more about it gives them an opportunity to get those feelings out. After the emotional need has been expressed and met and after your teen has calmed down, then you can redirect and focus on to problem-solving. “Ok, let’s talk about how we can work together to make sure things are getting done without me nagging.”
- Ask your teen for their thoughts, feelings and ideas. Because teens are growing into adults, they really appreciate sharing their input and having more control over their lives, which in turn helps prepare them to go out on their own in the world. So, it’s helpful to solicit their ideas about solving a problem and their feelings about how things are going in the family or in their lives. Sticking to our example, you could say, “What do you think would help us listen to each other better?” or “How could we work together to make sure things are getting done without anyone nagging?” This also gives your teen more buy-in to whatever plan you create, which makes them more likely to follow through.
We’d love to hear if you find these strategies helpful or if you have more of your own that you’d like to share! Reach out anytime to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PS-We also have an awesome Teen Support Group that gives teens a space just for them to sort through life stresses and challenges, learn new skills and help each other.
Good luck and take care,