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Three Styles of Teen Communication: Openness, Secrets, and Lies

Research tells a tale of trust and autonomy.

Key points

  • Stereotypically, parents and teenagers are known for difficulty being on the same page.
  • Parents are seen as "not getting it" while teenagers "never talk about what's going on in their lives."
  • Research shows the story is more nuanced, with three types of teenage communication: Reserved, Communicators, and Deceptive
  • Understanding the factors which work for and against open communication give families tools for greater connection.

Being a teenager today seems more complicated than ever. Teenagers have always faced the struggle between autonomy and dependence, privacy and access, while they seek to forge an independent identity and set a course for the future. Growing up ain't easy... as parents may recall.

An Eternal Struggle?

While adolescence has always been complicated, a host of changes—social media; an uncertain and increasingly unsafe-feeling world; radical shifts in gender, workplace and family structure; and more—place adolescents in uncharted territory. Yet in other ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Parents and teens don't always see eye to eye. While parents often want to be involved, and need to be involved, it's a common trope that adolescents may (rightly at times) think that adults just don't get it.

Adolescents have a need to face challenges in order to develop autonomy while maintaining a useful parental support structure; parental involvement needs to be constructive. Having healthy relationships within the family is important for healthy adult development, both in terms of maintaining secure attachment and modeling future intimate relationships while providing guidance when needed and appropriate.

In order this to happen, adolescents have to feel safe enough, even when embarrassed or scared of punishment, to approach parents. Families in which parent-child relations are disrupted put adolescents at future risk for a variety of problems, including emotional abuse in adult relationships.

We don’t expect teens to share everything (to say the least) but we want them to come to parents pretty freely, in good times and bad. Understanding the psychology of parent-teen collaboration is crucial, even, sometimes, a matter of life and death.

What Communication Style Matches Your Family's?

To better understand how adolescents approach or avoid communicating with parents, Baudat, Mantouranis, Van Petegem and Zimmermann (2021) conducted research on sharing information (disclosure), concealment, and frank deception among more than 300 teens. In addition to determining whether there were clear types of teen communication stance, the study also looked at the impact of parenting style and risk of problematic alcohol use.

The study measured secret keeping, disclosure, and lying with an array of tools including the Child Disclosure Scale along with questions about lying (Engels et al., 2006). Parenting style was assessed to determine level of parenting involvement, support of autonomy, and degree of structure provided via measures including the Acceptance-Rejection section of the Child Report of Parent Behavior Inventory; elements from the Perceived Parental Autonomy Support Scale; and the Parental Control Scale.

The Self-Regulation Questionnaire was used to look at reasons why teens would or wouldn’t share important information, factors such as inner feelings of guilt, the personal value system of the teenager (relative to the parents), fear of punishment, and ease of communication. Problematic teen alcohol use was assessed with the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test).

Three Styles Cover the Bases

Three distinct types of adolescent communication emerged: Reserved (37 percent), Communicators (36 percent), and Deceptive (27 percent).

Reserved. Teens in this group often opened up to mothers and occasionally to fathers. They were unlikely to keep secrets or lie. They saw their parents as more involved compared with those in the Deceptive group and noted higher levels of maternal autonomy support. When they chose to share, it was with greater autonomy than those in the Deceptive class. They had a moderate risk of problematic alcohol use.

Communicators. In this group, teens were more likely to be open with both mothers and fathers. They rarely kept secrets from either and virtually never lied. Participants in this class saw their parents as being more involved and supportive of burgeoning independence. When they chose to share information, it was more likely out of conscious choice than guilt or fear of punishment. They reported higher levels of paternal structure compared with those in the Deceptive class. They had the lowest risk of problematic alcohol use.

Deceptive. Participants occasionally shared information with mothers, rarely with fathers. They often kept information from both parents and were moderately likely to lie to both parents. They were least likely to make decisions based on autonomy, and they reported lower needs-supportive parenting. They were the most likely to report problematic alcohol use.

Bridging the Gap

Life can be challenging for both parents and teens, and navigating adolescence optimally requires a foundation of good relationships between parent and child. This is most evident in the Communicator group, where structure and support, sharing and privacy were well-balanced to foster an atmosphere of trust and open communication. In this group, the relationship with both mothers and fathers was relatively open and risk (as reflected in alcohol use) was minimal. Notably, greater structure from the father was present.

The Reserved group showed a different pattern, with lower levels of openness, more so with mothers than fathers, greater concealment, but minimal lying. Teens in this group reported moderate levels of autonomy in their motivations to open up but were somewhat avoidant. They were at greater risk for alcohol problems.

The Deceptive group was at highest risk for alcohol-related problems. These teens presumably trusted their parents the least (whether that mistrust was deserved or not was not assessed) and felt the lowest levels of autonomy support. They were the most likely to lie.

These are important findings, an important part of the developmental puzzle. Prior research has looked at how parenting style may place kids at greater future abuse risk. The authoritative style is the most protective, with high emotional support, low intrusiveness, and clear behavioral guardrails.

Permissive-neglectful, permissive-indulgent and especially authoritarian parenting styles correlate with increased risk. Attachment plays a key role.

There were clear differences among Reserved, Communicator, and Deceptive groups in terms of relationship with mother and father, a finding consistent with prior research (Phares et al., 2008). Newer family constellations notwithstanding (as this study only looked at heterosexual couples’ teens), in general the connection with mothers was stronger, and to some extent fathers applied greater structure (e.g. in the Reserved group).

This study did not look at causal factors or take child personality or temperament into account. Nevertheless, for parents seeking to foster the most healthy environment, the Communicator group is most instructive and appealing.

Parents would presumably want their kids to be in this group, experiencing high trust and openness with mom and dad, the absence of lying, and the lowest risk of trouble as reflected by reduced risk of problematic alcohol use.

Findings from the Communicator group suggest that parents strive to respect and cultivate teen autonomy while providing support and appropriate structure—especially associated with fathers— and avoiding punitive, shaming parenting.

Such conditions enable teens to develop a secure sense of self and interpersonal safety when approaching parents, presumably leaving them more likely to exercise good judgment when out of parental reach (having internalized good-enough parental figures as a safe base).

For parents who see their kids as being in the Reserved or Deceptive classes, it isn’t clear from this study to what extent parenting causes the problem, to what extent the child’s innate characteristics come into play, and how much reflects parent-child attachment fit.

This is intriguing research, not only for parents but also perhaps in considering challenges younger generations face in entering traditional work environments, especially GenZ and Millennials, for whom research identifies unique challenges related to attachment and interpersonal expectations.

However, without pointing the finger of blame at oneself or one's offspring, parents confronted with problematic teen behavior may find it effective to engage in compassionate self-reflection to determine whether their approach to parenting, and possibly their own developmental history may be adding fuel to the fire. Individual and family therapeutic help may be effective, preferably before things get out of hand.

References

Baudat, S., Mantzouranis, G., Van Petegem, S. et al. How Do Adolescents Manage Information in the Relationship with Their Parents? A Latent Class Analysis of Disclosure, Keeping Secrets, and Lying. J Youth Adolescence (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-022-01599-0

Engels, R.C.M.E., Finkenauer, C. & van Kooten, D.C. Lying Behavior, Family Functioning and Adjustment in Early Adolescence. J Youth Adolescence 35, 949–958 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-006-9082-1

Phares, V., Fields, S. & Kamboukos, D. Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement with Their Adolescents. J Child Fam Stud 18, 1–9 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-008-9200-7

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