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Increasing Communication Between Parent and Teenager

Try to Be Positive
As mentioned, much of our interaction with the adolescent involves correction or trying to teach something, get a point across, or change an attitude. Therefore, much of the communication is often negative. Parents frequently pay more attention to mistakes, misbehaviors, and failures than they do to successes and accomplishments. This is especially true in adolescence. A teenager whose job is to walk the dog before bedtime does this six nights in a row, but forgets on the seventh night. When does she get attention for this behavior? Usually on the one night she forgets to walk the dog! Nobody says anything complimentary about her performance on the other six nights. Another example: Your son cleans the kitchen and does a beautiful job, except that he forgets to empty the dishwasher. Of course, the attention for cleaning the kitchen will focus on the one chore that was overlooked. Another child does an excellent job cutting the grass, edging, and sweeping, but fails to put the gasoline can back in the garage. The good behavior is overlooked and the emphasis is on the can of gas that was left out.

Would you frequently communicate with or become fond of a boss who is constantly critical of your performance? No, you would tend to avoid that person and keep your verbal interaction to a minimum. All of us try to avoid situations that produce negative attention. Therefore, if the majority of your verbal interaction with the adolescent is negative, she will try to avoid it. The end result will be that the amount of time she spends talking to you will be reduced. Think about the last ten discussions or verbal interactions you had with your adolescent. Did most of them involve some type of correction or discussion that emphasized what the child was doing wrong, her negative behavior, or what she should or should not do?

Although most parents find it easier to praise a young child than an adolescent, you should pay attention to some of the teen's appropriate behaviors when they occur (e.g., when the clothes are put away or when the cat's litter box is changed). If 99 percent of the kitchen has been cleaned and only one percent is dirty, you should offer 99 percent positive attention and either overlook the negative or sandwich it somewhere in your positive response to the appropriate behavior. Work at increasing positive verbal interaction.

Communicate with the teenager about his successes, accomplishments, and good behaviors as much or more than you talk to him about his failures, mistakes, and bad behaviors. If you interacted with your child three times today and all three occasions were negative, this is worse than if you interacted with him 100 times today, and fifty occasions were negative and fifty positive. In general, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that when you get ready to go to bed and review your day with the child, you want to be sure you have spent more time looking at positive behaviors, attitudes, and activities than you have spent looking at negative behaviors. Teenagers who receive a significant amount of positive verbal attention and interaction want to talk more with their parents. If this occurs, the lines of communication will be kept open and you will become more aware of your teenager's feelings, opinions, and objections.

You Can Talk Too Much
Some parents just talk too much. For example: A child asks her father to help with an algebra problem because she has run into difficulty with a particular step. The father sits down and spends forty-five minutes explaining things like unknown values, rational coefficients, and extraction of roots. The teenager then thinks, "When I ask my parents to help me with homework, all I want them to do is answer a particular question, which will probably take a minute or two, and instead they sit down and spend an hour trying to get me to understand the whole concept of the subject." The result is that this adolescent stops asking her parents to help with homework.

There are several different areas where parents tend to talk too much.

Questions. The average teenager does not like to be asked many questions. Even simple, casual questions, such as "How was your day?" "Did you have a good time last night?" "Where are you going Saturday?" are sometimes seen as the third degree. Many times adolescents who experience a lot of questions will respond with flippant answers, will tell the parent exactly what he or she wants to hear, or will not respond at all.

Rather than ask the teenager a complex series of questions or put her through the third degree, a parent is better advised to discuss the situation with the teenager. Talk to her about what has happened and go with the flow of the conversation, rather than put her on the spot or ask her a number of disjointed questions. For example, your son has just started a new friendship and you want to know something about the friend and his family. Rather than ask a series of questions (such as "How old is Johnny?" "Where does he go to school?" "Does he have any brothers or sisters?" "Where does his father work?"), you could ask one question or wait for the child to start talking about his friend and then sit down and listen. The teenager's response to the one question may offer a variety of information, or his conversation may provide you with several areas to pursue. For example, you might ask, "What did you do at Johnny's house today?" or he might just volunteer that information. While discussing what he and Johnny did, your child may generate some other information like "Johnny's brother came with us to pick up a tape at Billy's house." You could then use the mention of the brother to ask about Johnny's siblings. Other responses by your son might mention Johnny's parents, schooling, or some other aspects. The information provided by your son will help you to determine the direction of the conversation. By responding to the child in this fashion, it does not seem as if a series of questions is being directed at the adolescent and, as a result, the conversation flows more smoothly. Try to avoid disjointed questions and use the information supplied by your child to direct the flow of the conversation and to gather the knowledge that you desire.

Some children complain, "My mother asks me a question and then answers it herself, before I have time to say anything." This type of response by a parent is a good way to minimize communication between parent and child. You have to be a good listener and give your child an opportunity to respond to your questions.

Lectures. "Oh, no. Here comes Lecture 35 again." Some children tell me their parents should put some of their lectures on tape and just replay them, because they have heard them so many times before. One child told me that he hates to have discussions with his father. When I asked him why, he said, "Every time I do something wrong or get a bad grade from school, my father sits down and has a long talk with me." In other words, much of the father's interaction with this child involves lectures.

Sometimes when we are trying to make a point with a youngster, it is best to be brief rather than to provide another lecture. Children usually tune out lectures. Your communication will be more effective if you are brief and to the point.

Repetition. This topic involves both of the above areas (questions and lectures), as well as some others. Parents tend to give the same lecture over and over again, and sometimes ask the same question repeatedly. This is a good way to turn off the kids and minimize verbal interaction. Repetition also involves nagging: "Did you do your homework?" may be asked several times a day. Instructions like "Go clean your room" are repeated too many times.

Most of the time, parents continually repeat things because the teen does not do what they request. As mentioned earlier, rather than remind a child 500 times to clean his or her room, it would be better to set a rule and the consequence of the behavior. Spell out what you expect and what will happen, then leave it alone. "You cannot go out Saturday night until you clean your room." "You cannot talk on the phone until your homework is completed."

Excessive questioning, lectures, and repetition of questions and instructions produce more anger, resentment, stubbornness, opposition, and back talk. Remember, teenagers are often already annoyed with these "stupid grownups" for telling them to do something. The more that this negative type of interaction exists, the more likely it is that anger, resentment, and other negative feelings will develop.


From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Buy the book at Barron's.

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