Do you find yourself trying to communicate with your teen but having difficulty connecting with them? I often speak with parents who feel incredibly frustrated and concerned when trying to communicate with their teens, and I found that most parents don’t have the basic skills to do so despite their best intentions.
This morning I had a conversation with the parents of a 15-year-old who they claim has an eating disorder. According to the parents, their daughter, who for the purpose of this blog, I will call Taylor, has been restricting for the past year and is exercising obsessively. During their last visit to the pediatrician, it seemed that their daughter had lost 20 pounds, and the doctor recommended that the parents bring her to get weighed at least once a month. The parents said that Taylor was overweight, and she is now at a “normal” weight according to them… There were several concerning things in the conversion. Still, the one that concerned me the most was that the parents said that they were walking on eggshells around their daughter and that the only communication between them resulted in anger, yelling, and a total disruption to the whole family.
When I asked the parents how they would react to Taylor’s behavior, they said they would punish her by taking her cell phone away and prohibit her from leaving the apartment. They also added that they don’t have the patience to deal with her moods and sometimes just let her express her anger without any response.
I validated the parents by telling them, "It seems that you are experiencing various challenges with your daughter, and you are concerned about her and don’t know how to deal with her behavior and mood. That sounds really hard to navigate.” I asked the parents what would help them best with this situation, and they admitted that they lacked the skills to deal with her. I was highly impressed by their candidacy and shared that most parents lack the basic skills to deal with their kids. This conversation and my experience working with parents and teens for the past 20 years inspired me to write this blog and share the five basic communication skills that parents of teens (and anyone) must know!
Tip #1: Validation
While this is a relatively simple term to understand, it is incredibly challenging to execute but with a little bit of practice you can master it and have a healthier relationship with your teen! When I ask most parents if they know what validation is and how to do it, they are often left without the ability to explain what it is and how to do it.
This is how you would validate your teen, or anyone, when they share something with you. I will use the example of what the parents shared with me when their daughter said that she feels fat and that they are only thinking about themselves.
Taylor: “I hate all of you, and I wish that I was never born to this family at all.”
Mom: “You can find different parents if you think we are that bad!”
Taylor: “You don’t care that I am miserable and fat… all you care about is yourself and your stupid friends.”
Mom: “What are you talking about? You are not fat. You look great.”
Taylor: “You don’t understand me, and you never will.”
Mom walks away.
Let’s review what happened. When Taylor expressed her anger, her mom suggested she find another family. Clearly, this was not her intention, but for the purpose of explaining validation, I will explain how Taylor’s mom could have responded in a way that would make Taylor feel heard. “IT MAKES SENSE THAT you would say that you hate us and that you wish you had another family BECAUSE we took your phone and don’t allow you to see your friends….”
Now, it is very important to be aware that when validating your child, it does not mean that you agree with them. Many parents get confused when we talk about validation because they think that validating equals agreeing. This is not the case, because after validating by saying, “It makes sense that… because…,” you would move to express your thoughts and opinion about what they said and how they behaved. By validating, you simply connect with your teen and make them feel heard. You can learn more about validation from the technique The Imago Intentional Dialogue here.
You might be wondering about what to do once you validate your teen. What if Taylor continued to express her anger in inappropriate ways? What can you do?
Let’s move to the second tip.
Tip #2: Reacting to Responding
This is one of my favorite skills because once you master it, you have so much control over your actions. Now, I am clearly writing this as a mental health counselor, and when it comes to parenting my three teenage girls, it is not always as simple as it reads! But I promise that once you practice this over and over, you will master this, and you will create a much healthier environment for your teen.
Let’s take the mom's reaction when she left the conversation as a reaction to Taylor’s statement, “You don’t understand me, and you never will.” You must do one simple thing when you want to scream and run away: ASK A QUESTION. For Taylor’s mom, she would say something like “What makes you say that?” or any other question you can think of that can help transition you from the reactive mode to a more responsive or curious mode.
Tip #3: Repair
Let’s assume you do what many parents do: reacting and not continuously validating your teen. Let’s even take it a step further and say that you did what Taylor’s mom did and left the conversation because you were overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. After Taylor’s mom left, both Taylor and her mom felt uncomfortable and unhappy. This is not always bad, because the fact that Taylor felt safe expressing herself to her mom is significant. Repair means that after something like this happens, you would calm down and reflect on what happened. Then you would go back to your teen and ask if you can talk about it together. If you think your teen is extremely upset and this interaction pattern has been happening for a while, I suggest adding an apology. For Taylor’s mom, she was reactive and didn’t listen to what was said. She also took things personally which wasn’t necessary. Once your teen agrees to the meeting, I suggest making sure the timing suits both of you before the meeting happens.
There are so many essential skills that can help you better communicate with your teen and anyone else, and I hope these three skills will help you communicate better and healthier with your teens.
If you would like to learn more about these skills as well as other communication skills for parents, you can sign up for my virtual Parent Communication Skills Workshop here.
If you have any comments, questions, or feedback, please feel free to write a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading!