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Communicating clearly with your adolescent

Communicating specifics works better than relying on abstracts

At best, verbal communication is a clumsy way to keep each other accurately informed because words are often poor approximations of meaning we intend to convey.

For example, we tell our young child to "clean up" her room, she assures us the clean up has been done, yet when we inspect we find she has only rearranged the mess - shoving the clutter under the covers, into the closet, and beneath the bed. "That's not cleaned up!" we say. "It is too!" she argues. "It looks neat just like you told me!"

And that's the problem. We didn't specify what we meant. We only gave a general term. If we had taken the time to objectively define what we meant by "clean up" - dirty clothes in the hamper, clean cloths hung up or folded in drawers, trash put in wastebasket, for example - we might have gotten something closer to what we wanted.

Thus it was at a gathering of middle school parents that the question was asked: "What is the best way to communicate with our adolescent?" The answer that immediately came to mind was one that psychologist John Narciso taught me many years ago. "Clearly," I replied. "By clearly I mean making your language more operational and less abstract. That way you can bring a level of definition to your requests, instructions, or corrections that has a higher likelihood of being understood the way you want."

Then I remember John asking a group of teachers for words that described another person with whom they would value being in relationship. In response people offered such descriptors as "considerate," "responsible," and "respectful."

Yes, he agreed that kind of person in relationship sounded good to him too. Than he asked for a volunteer to come up and help him out.

"Would you do ‘responsible?' for me," he would ask.
The teacher couldn't understand.

"Would you act ‘responsible?'" he would prompt.
Still the teacher seemed at a loss.

"Is there a problem?" he asked.

"Yes," the teacher replied, "you haven't told me what you mean by ‘responsible,' so I don't know what to do or how to act."

"Exactly," said John. "And that's the problem with using abstract language - it communicates, but that meaning is mostly vague. Any two people are going to have a hard time agreeing on what precisely is being said."

And so would begin a discussion about the limits of abstract communication - the use of general terms that sound informative, but are actually vacant of specific meaning. The more abstract the language, the more room there is for interpretation, misinterpretation and, most important, for misunderstanding. This is why John advocated a more operational use of language -- talking in terms of specific doings, behaviors, happenings, actions, and events..

To illustrate,consider parents and teenager in counseling. I ask the parents to tell their son how they would like him to be in the relationship. "We just want you to be considerate, responsible, and respectful. That's all." The request sounds reasonable, so I ask the teenager, "what do those three words mean to you?"

The young man thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. "I don't know."

And he is speaking the truth. In telling the young man what they want, the parents have actually told him close to nothing.

So what could parents do to communicate more clearly? Well, they could follow John's suggestion. They could make their choice of words more operational.

"By ‘considerate' we mean not borrowing our belongings before asking us for permission first. By ‘responsible' we mean not discarding your belongings all over the home but picking them up and putting them away in a place they belong. By ‘respectful' we mean hearing out what we have to say without interrupting, as we do with you." By making the abstract more operational, a mutually understood meaning is easier to pin down.

One circumstance in which it is particularly difficult to keep speech operational is during times of conflict. The reason is that when in conflict the character of spoken language often changes. With rising emotional intensity, it often changes from positive to negative, from specific to abstract. So in frustration, the parent says, "You are being inconsiderate, irresponsible, and disrespectful, and I want it to stop!"

The only meaning that has been successfully conveyed is parental disapproval. Now the parent is engaging in name-calling. Because there is no mention of the specific actions and behaviors the parent wants addressed, the use of negative abstractions is more likely to arouse hard feelings than to successfully encourage any cooperative resolution.

Abstracts are good for poetry because they can contain multiple meanings. But if you really want what you say to be understood they way you intend it, a more specific (operational) choice of words often works best.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the problem with truth.

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