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Breaking Down the Parent-Teen Communication Barrier

The difference between talking with your teenager and just talking at them.

Key points

  • While inappropriate or dangerous behaviors by your adolescent may need immediate attention, having them understand why may take time.
  • It's difficult to have an effective conversation with your teen when you are both emotionally reactive.
  • Emotions can be overwhelming to both children and adults. Meaningful discussions may be more effective after emotions have dissipated.

When your teenager has done something inappropriate or dangerous, you may need to immediately correct their behavior; however, any teaching moments you have in mind may have to wait if you want them to be effective. Chances are, the last time you were upset with your adolescent, you not only tried to correct the behavior, but you also wanted to have a discussion about why the behavior was inappropriate.

For example, if your teen steals something from a convenience store and you find out about it, you may be scared of the trouble they could be in if they get caught. This gets you upset and you emotionally lash out at your teen, making it clear that their behavior is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. Your fear of them getting caught, or taking part in more illegal activities, can scare you and cause you to become very upset and reactive. This may hinder your ability to be as clear-thinking as you’d like when talking with your teen. When you are lost in your emotions and start to lash out verbally, it can become overwhelming to them. This can result in them shutting down emotionally and not being able to take in what you’re saying. They may even pretend it’s not a big deal and question why you’re upset.

When Emotions Get Activated

A child’s stonewalling when they’re emotionally overwhelmed can understandably become frustrating and upsetting to parents. When this happens, you may become so upset that you overreact yourself and start threatening draconian punishments (“You can’t go out with your friends for the next five years!”), that later you have to take back because they were too harsh. The point is that most likely your attempt at a life lesson right after emotionally overwhelming your child may not be very effective.

What has happened is that by the time you have tried to explain your fears about their behavior, they were already so defensive they couldn’t take in what you were saying. When someone feels criticized and called to task on their unacceptable behavior, their first thought may be to deny or justify it. Either way, you’re not likely to effectively get through to them at that moment. They may have very little capacity to listen to you because of their own defensiveness.

It is likely that when your adolescent is being defiant, or your teen is stonewalling you, it is because they were triggered by being criticized and then became reactive themselves. That’s why trying to have a discussion with your child about the inappropriateness of their behavior at that time may not be effective.

The Right Message, the Wrong Time

The minute you start correcting your child in a forceful way, it’s likely that their defense mechanisms kick into gear and they start blocking out what you’re saying. This is normal, as it’s a way of protecting themselves when someone is saying negative things to them. The problem is, it renders you helpless to get your point across at that moment. Unfortunately, those are the moments when you most want to let them know your thoughts on why their behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable. Unfortunately, that may be the least effective time to try and make your point.

In order for our words to have meaning to our kids, we have to make sure they’re listening to us. The person we’re talking to has to be open to hearing what we have to say. In this case, that requires the child to not be in the middle of a negative reaction after being disciplined or criticized. The teen has to be able to hear us without feeling at risk or having the need to defend themselves. This can be accomplished; however, it may not be on the timeline that our own timeline is telling us. When we feel our child is in danger or engaging in unacceptable behaviors, we also get emotionally activated. That means our natural inclination is to deal with the issue immediately.

Teenagers' Defense Mechanisms

Looking at this from the teen’s point of view, when they recognize they’ve messed up and are upset about their behavior, it can lead to them becoming upset with themselves. It’s also possible the teen may feel the adult is overreacting and that they didn’t do anything wrong. Either of these feelings can cause them to become absorbed in their own emotions and not be open to input from the adult. As a result, they may not be in a place to hear you. That’s why no matter what you say, it may not be effective and can cause the child to become more upset and defiant, which in turn can further infuriate you.

To have more positive communication with adolescents, we have to talk with them when they’re ready to hear us. While we need to correct potentially dangerous behaviors immediately, the educational part of the discussion may need to wait. To really reach them, they have to be in a place to listen to us, which may mean waiting until the emotions have dissipated and you can each discuss what happened logically. That would be the time you and your child can discuss expectations and boundaries moving forward. Teens can be reasonable. It’s just tough for them to be reasonable when they’re in the midst of being taken to task and become reactive. By waiting for the emotional upset to subside, we can be more effective in talking with them, and ultimately having them adhere to behaviors that can help keep them safe.

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