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Improving Communication between Parents and Teenagers
By Irene M. Swerdlow-Freed, Psy.D.
Teenagers enter their adolescent years with a mixture of optimism, excitement and apprehension. Rightfully so! Adolescence is a time when boys and girls begin to establish greater independence from their parents. It is also a time when young people begin to develop the sense of personal individuality that will help define their future identity as adults. In fact, establishing independence and forming a unique identity are two of the most important developmental tasks adolescents must accomplish in preparation for living satisfying and productive adult lives.
It is not easy for parents or teenagers to smoothly navigate this transitional stage which is often accompanied by an increase in tension and strain in the parent-child relationship. Adolescents want to demonstrate independence from their parents and to make their own decisions. They often do not recognize their need for adult supervision, guidance and support in their transition to adulthood.
Some parents find it easy to keep the lines of communication open with an adolescent child. These parents are often perceived by the child as stable sources of positive influence, and the teen feels supported in his/her growing independence. Communication in such families is characterized by mutual respect and the ability to freely exchange feelings and ideas. Parents who understand their teenager’s need for a reasonable measure of independence and individuality encourage their child’s growth and achievements. This positive interest strengthens the bonds of the parent-child relationship. When an adolescent receives parental approval and believes that the parent genuinely values his/her accomplishments, it promotes a positive self-concept and creates a willingness to share other information about one’s self.
Many families find it difficult to establish and maintain open communication with their child during the adolescent years. Some parents have difficulty understanding the changes their teenager is experiencing and resist his/her need to pull away from the family and make independent decisions. At the same time, some teenagers are so self-focused they do not appreciate or accept their parents’ legitimate concerns, and, they rebel against all parental authority. In these circumstances, frequent arguments may develop, and family life may become difficult and conflict ridden for all. Parents and teenagers may withdraw from one another to avoid arguments, but this is typically a short-term solution that does not resolve the underlying problems. The tension and disruption may become intolerable and the parents may need professional help to re-establish harmony within the family.
A major long term goal, when assisting parents and adolescents who are experiencing difficulty in their interactions, is to help them develop more effective communication and problem solving skills. This enables the family members to resolve their own conflicts and to establish more harmonious and more satisfying relationships. In order to accomplish this goal action must be taken in a number of areas.
The first step in this process is to define the problem. It is important to help all family members to clarify their views on the nature of the conflicts and the circumstances that cause them. This is accomplished by discussing specific areas of disagreement, such as curfew, choice of friends, chores, or school performance, and by identifying the communication patterns that exist within the family and result in conflict. Parents and teenagers are helped to examine their own behavior to identify their role in disagreements. In addition they are assisted in identifying the ways in which they themselves can resolve problems and prevent further disruption of family life.
Not surprisingly, parents and teenagers feel in better control of their lives once they understand the ways in which their own conduct contributes to family discord. With this insight, they are then ready to explore steps they can take together to resolve future impasses on a less confrontational basis.
We endeavor to teach the family to attack the problem, not each other. This involves assisting family members to respond less intensely when upset, to state a position without being disrespectful and to communicate genuine interest in what is being said by others. The family learns how listen without interrupting, how to verify the accuracy of what they heard, and how to discuss a problem without becoming side-tracked by irrelevant issues.
After the sources of the problems are analyzed and family members have learned to communicate more effectively, we encourage them to propose possible solutions. Parents and teenagers are helped to discuss and clarify the changes they would like to see to reduce family conflict. They are taught to listen without immediately responding and to respond in a way that maintains constructive dialogue. By jointly discussing all proposed solutions, the family members begin to comprehend each other’s positions and each participant ends up feeling acknowledged and better understood.
After family members have learned effective listening and feedback techniques and have become more skilled at identifying the problem and proposing possible alternatives they are ready for the final step in this process - evaluating and selecting solutions. The teenager and the parents are now able to listen to one another without interrupting, to better understand each other’s position, and feel that their own view is being taken into consideration. These changes result in a significant lessening of animosity and a new willingness to compromise. Parents and teenagers are now more ready and able to discuss and agree on specific solutions that can benefit the whole family.
Adolescence is a transitional period for both children and their parents. It involves individual and family changes which can at times disrupt family relationships. By improving communication and developing better problem solving skills, families can work together to minimize disagreements and restore a good level of harmony in their home.
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