The key to building a positive relationship and sorting out any communication difficulties with your teenager is to keep the channels of communication open. We can get locked into unhelpful ways of communicating - bickering, nagging, criticizing - that once we're in are hard to avoid. 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. You can reduce the amount of indifference and opposition from your teenager if you improve your skills.
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’ – about music, how school was , friends etc. not always lecture
- use 'I' messages – instead of ‘You left the kitchen a mess’ try ‘I was upset because I had to tidy the kitchen before breakfast this morning. Please tidy up after yourself.’
- use open questions – Closed questions stop communication e.g. ‘Have you got homework?’ Open questions encourage conversation e.g. ‘How was school today?’
- share something of yourself - If you want your teenager to feel relaxed and happy about sharing their concerns and feelings with you, it helps to be open yourself.
- treat the young person as an equal - Treating your teenager as an equal does not make them arrogant or out of control. It gives them every incentive to live up to your trust. Part of this is accepting that you both may have different views, beliefs and opinions, which isn't always easy for parents.
- practice 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.
- listen without judgement or criticism - you need to give them the same support that you would a friend - simply listen without passing comment, without making judgements or offering criticism. 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 them for their positive qualities - make the positive effort to see and tell them what you like about them: their enthusiasm and liveliness, their kindness and concern, their sense of humour.
- 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. 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!'
- give frequent 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.
- include the young person in family activities but give them the choice 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. 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.
- 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 stand back 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.