Teen Health     K-12    

Child Behavior: Communicating with your adolescent, Part II

Communicating with your adolescent

Last month I began the discussion of dealing with your adolescent, and we’ll continue that discussion here now. Previously, I assured you that their behavior is normal, and that you as a parent have done nothing wrong.  I also talked about keeping open lines of communication. There are three more areas I’d like to touch on.

READ MORE: Communicating with your adolescent, Part I

Stop being critical

The surest communication killer between parents and their adolescents is CRITICISM! No one enjoys being confronted with their own deficiencies or mistakes, least of all adolescents. Adolescents also don’t want to hear how ridiculous you believe their peers’ behavior to be. Their peers are their primary mentors and they have a strong allegiance to them. Many theorists have also related that the peer group is often like a mirror for the adolescent, reflecting back to her who she currently is. When you criticize her friends you are de facto criticizing her.

Like any mirror, the peer group can also serve the purpose of showing someone what they need to adjust or fix when they see the reflected image. I want to assure you that I know that your criticism is valid; of course it is.  Much of the behavior exhibited by the majority of adolescents is indeed ridiculous, and the friends they pick are clearly not your first choice, or in many instances not even your 10th choice. But we are talking about communication, and if you want to communicate with your teen, ease up on the criticism.

It’s often better for parents to accept without criticism what we believe are the poor choices for friends that our adolescents make rather than cause our children to hide these people from us. Remember we could also be wrong about the people in our adolescent’s life. What father truly adores their adolescent daughter’s choice for suitors?

Additionally, constant criticism of our adolescents creates a doubt within them about their self worth. If you tell an adolescent his choices are poor ones and his behavior is ridiculous, he may grow to believe that this is the totality of his identity and perpetually act in accordance. If you need to offer criticism, be sure to be constructive and take into account how this message will be received by your adolescent.

Helpful criticism doesn’t speak negatively about the person; rather, helpful criticism analyzes the situation or goal and relates ways to correct or improve either by offering ideas about what can be done.

As hard as it might be to believe, adolescents want input from their parents, but it must be given in a manner they can accept. Of all the adolescent guides for parents, my favorite title is Anthony Wolf’s "Get Out Of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall". The title of Wolf’s book epitomizes the adolescent’s divergent need for autonomy and attachment simultaneously.

READ MORE: Dealing with your tween's new attitude

Choose your battles

This well-worn phrase punctuates the antithesis of what raising an adolescent is all about. I put this heading in not because I feel it is an appropriate metaphor but because I feel it’s important to discuss. “Choose your battles” is often the mindset that many parents embrace when they are interacting with their adolescent. This “choose your battles” style of parenting, by definition, means that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose.

Your goal with your child or adolescent is to do what is necessary to raise a healthy and happy person who will grow into a well-adjusted and productive adult. Whenever I hear this phrase used to describe the interaction between parents and their children I always think of the great Chinese sage and author Sun Tzu, who wrote the legendary book The Art Of War, in which he states “Therefore, to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest skill; to subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”

Raising teens is not a battle; it can be a harmonious and joyful time where you can help your slowly emerging adult really hear what you have to say, and have her benefit from your years of experience. 

Before you criticize or intervene, stop and ask yourself: is it really necessary for me to intervene and potentially initiate a shouting match or can I let it go? Just stopping for a few seconds and rethinking your direction can foster not only effective and friendly communication when you do engage; it can also bring more peace and harmony to your home.

Listen to your adolescent’s ideas

The rallying cry of most adolescents is “my parents don’t listen to me” or “my parents don’t understand me.” Adolescents need to feel that their opinions and input are important are valued and are listened to. Adolescents want parents that talk with them not at them.

I clearly remember when, as an adolescent, I would try to talk to my father about a difficult situation I was experiencing, and he would add another mile he had to walk in the snow to get to school, and then more miles in the snow to get to work, and how I shouldn’t complain because I had it too easy.

Remember, it’s not about you and your adolescent struggles, however interesting – it’s about theirs now. Do kids today have it easier than we did? In most cases the answer is yes, but that still doesn’t negate the struggles they are experiencing now. One of the goals for parents during adolescence is to help kids develop autonomy and control over their behavior. When adolescents and their parents clearly communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas, and reach mutually agreed upon decisions, there are no losers. Both are victorious.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh.

Other articles by Paul Schwartz