Why Parent and Adolescent Need to Keep Talking

Communication problems between parent and teenager start when they stop speaking

Posted Aug 12, 2013

The reason why it’s important for parent and teenager to keep talking is because of what can often happen when they don’t, won’t, or can’t.

By not keeping each other adequately informed, ignorance can become a problem as anxiety and imagination from not knowing create false assumptions and misunderstandings that can make an estranged or strained relationship worse. Talking with each other is a primary way parent and teenager can acknowledge each other, keep current with what is going on, and stay comfortably connected.

Ignorance in relationships is the abiding human problem that verbal communication is meant to overcome. This is an ongoing problem because change (that vital process that keeps upsetting resetting the terms of our existence) is always creating new information needs. It constantly takes people from an old to new, same to different, known to unknown state of experience and circumstance. Thus, the developmental change called adolescence keeps altering the parent/child relationship in ways that need to be discussed if they are to be understood. Because talking matters, it is worthwhile further reflecting why.

For purposes of discussion, consider spoken communication in an oversimplified way.

Suppose right now I was standing in front of you, and I asked you three very simple questions. First, “What am I feeling right now?” You could guess, but unless I told you, you really wouldn’t know for sure. Second, “What am I thinking right now?” You could guess again, but unless I told you, you really wouldn’t know that for sure either. Third, “What am I doing right now?” Well, you could answer that since my behavior is here to see. But if I amended the question and asked, “What was I doing an hour ago?”, unless I told you, you really wouldn’t know the answer to that either.

Even if I was someone you know very well and love very much – a parent, a child, a partner, a close friend – at any moment in time we remain a mystery to each other. We are strangers to what is currently going on in each other’s life. Without their help, we can’t even answer the most basic questions about the other person – what are they feeling, what are they thinking, what have they been doing? We only know the answers if we are told and even then true understanding depends on being told the truth. Hence the cardinal sin in communication is falsifying the data – lying.

So, one simple definition of spoken communication is the process through which people, in this case parent and teenager, exchange verbal data. They are constantly gathering data in their relationship: “How are you feeling?” “What do you think about this?” “What’s been going on?” Questions are a primary way they collect needed information.

When parent or adolescent refuse to share the data (speak up), or when parent or adolescent refuse to receive the data (listen), then two primary needs in the relationship are frustrated -- the need to know and the need to be known. Connected to these needs are two hard responsibilities for parent and teenager to accept. It is hard to speak up about what you are reluctant to say or know the other person doesn’t want to hear. And it is hard to listen when you are tired or busy, or may disagree with what the other person is saying.

For example, the need to know may prompt a parent to check up on the teenager’s story to verify the data that the young person shared. “I checked with your friend’s parents and they said you never spent the night.” And now the defensive adolescent is outraged at this invasion of privacy, angry as well at being caught, parents bearing the brunt of his or her displeasure.

Or the need to be known may prompt an older adolescent to come out with parents and share his or her homosexuality, this disclosure taking courage because he or she is well aware of their antithetical religious beliefs. Now the young person will discover what difference this sexual difference will make in their relationship. Communication, sharing the data, isn’t always easy.

But what happens when significant data is not shared, data that one party needs to know and the other person doesn’t think or want or take the trouble to provide? To give a personal example, at the independent and unmindful age of fifteen, I stayed out all night with a friend for the first time. You have to put this event within the context of my mother’s expectation that I would be home by 10:30. Since I knew where I was all the time, and was in safe company, I had no cause for concern or worry so it never occurred to me to let my mother know. However, it turned out that my mom’s state of mind was another matter.

By 11:00 she was in fact starting to get worried, by midnight she was generating fearful fantasies of me being hurt, and from 1:00 to 5:00 she was bordering on panic at the dire scenarios she was imagining. So when I walked in, I was surprised to see my mom because she never stayed up that late or got up that early. Was something the matter? Now let me ask you: did she smile and give me a hug and say, “Welcome home, my son!” No. She was as angry as her temper allowed because in response to my denial of her need to know where I was and if I was all right, she had spent a terrifying night fearfully imagining the worst. In the absence of good information they need to know, people will often make up bad information on their own.

Lest you think that this denial of someone’s need to know is something only a thoughtless teenager will do to a parent, consider the dad who announces to his high school age daughter that he is going into the hospital for some medical tests and will let her know the outcome as soon as he is told. However, he doesn’t do as promised. And a week later his daughter explodes in anger at him: “Well, are you going to tell me about your bad medical news?” And the man is genuinely surprised. “I didn’t tell you because there wasn’t any problem to report. The tests were negative. I just assumed you’d know no news was good news, not bad.” This comforting information did nothing to undo the young woman’s week of worry. Withhold what someone needs to know and their anxiety may result in anger at you in response.

Of course, most of the communication data that we rely on in significant relationships is of the nonverbal kind – the state of dress, the eye contact, the voice tone, the physical posture, the casual gesture, the play of hands, the facial expression of the other person, for example. These can all be very telling sources of information, although we can be misguided in our interpretations about what they truly mean. Now false assumptions to cope with ignorance (what we think we know that really isn’t so) can cause a lot of trouble.

For example, a recently divorced mom awaits her middle school son who is returning from a week’s visitation with his dad. At last the front door opens, the mom is ready with a big smile, a big hug, and words of welcome but the young man, his face in a frown, only briefly meets her gaze, silently breezes by her, goes into his room, and closes the door. Not a word was spoken, but a world of information was communicated because actions can speak so much louder than words. Relying on her worst fears, this is the meaning that the woman sorted out: her son was feeling unhappy to see her, he was thinking of how his dad’s made a better home, and he was intending to announce his desire to live permanently with the man.

Coming to these painful conclusions, she barged into her son’s room and in anger announced: “Well if you want to live with your dad and don’t like seeing me, we can just make that change!” Startled, the young man looked up and she could see he’d been crying. “Mom, what are you talking about? I just had a hard visit with dad and I needed some alone time to get myself back together. I’m happy to see you. I’m really happy to be home!” And now as they start talking, the comfortable connection between them is re-established. Victimized by her own ignorance, the mom had satisfied her need to know by deciding what her son was feeling, thinking, and intending without verifying any of her assumptions. Better for her to have talked before and decided what was going on afterwards.

So the lesson is: when you don’t know what is going on in the other person but need to know, before creating your own assumptions about what they might be feeling, thinking, or intending, and before proceeding on your upsetting conclusions, check your assumptions out. Ask for what you need to know.

And don’t assume that just because you are feeling badly after a rough day that the other person, be it parent or adolescent, is going to know what is really the matter without being told. In caring relationships, when the other person acts in any way moody, disturbed, or upset, it’s easy for the other person to take it personally, overreact, and start imagining the worst. Now mind reading begins, and more often than not it results in guessing wrong. The paths that lead parent and adolescent into many conflicts are paved with false assumptions.

To forestall these encounters, verify your assumptions out before reacting, honor your own and each other’s need to know and need to be known, and keep talking, even when, especially when, the issues are hard to discuss. Ongoing spoken communication – sharing the data about one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors -- isn’t a perfect way to keep the relationship functioning well, but it’s one of the best means we have.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Also, there is a fascinating psychological literature that addresses the creation of false assumptions, “Attribution Theory.” Look it up if you are interested.

Next week’s entry: Variety of Family Conflicts in Adolescence