Talking with High School Students about Communication

How one speaks with parents influences communication with others for later on

Posted Jan 11, 2016

Car Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Car Pickhardt Ph.D.

Invited into a class of high school students to discuss communication between adolescents and parents, I tried to keep concepts simple and hopefully useful, first distinguishing between un-spoken and spoken communication.


I began by suggesting how most of the communication between adolescent and parent is un-spoken – picking up cues like voice tone, facial expression, physical posturing, and mood communicating behaviors that are routinely observed and interpreted.

People do this automatically. “I knew you were upset without your saying anything. I could just tell.” The other asks: “How did you know?” and then are told what the other sees. “Your mouth is drawn tight, you have a frown, and you are avoiding eye contact.” Expressing themselves without words, people signal more than they are usually aware as others continually scan them for unspoken information. 

Perhaps the most powerful unspoken communicator someone has, their facial mask, is invisible to the wearer, but is routinely studied by the other person. This reading of each other is more through detection than discussion, more through observation than conversation, interpreting what signs are seen and sensed.

However, these signs are often misinterpreted too, and when they are, false conclusions can be reached about the other’s mood and mental state and motivation that can trouble the relationship. “From not smiling and not greeting me back when you got home, I thought something was wrong between us, that you were upset with me!” Bothered by unspoken data in the other person, it’s usually best to verbally check one’s concern or worry or suspicion out. Do this and one reduces the risk of proceeding on a false assumption by taking personally what is not personally meant. Thus checking first, maybe one is told: “Yes, I’m feeling kind of beat up, but it’s nothing to do with you. Let me tell you what happened to me today.”    

Complicating the parent/adolescent relationship, there can be an unspoken information imbalance between them that favors the teenager. For survival's sake in many relationships, the lower positioned person tends to study the higher positioned person more closely to maintain a subtle observational advantage and influential edge. Thus just as employees can observe the boss more closely than the boss observes them, as an abused person can observe the abuser more closely than the abuser observes them, as minority can observe majority more closely than majority observes them, as followers can observe their leader more closely than the leader observes them, so the subordinate adolescent often learns to observe the superior parent more closely than the parent observes them. "I wait until I see my Mom or Dad are in a good mood before I ask." Higher position may have more ruling power, but lower position often develops more unspoken knowing to hold their own and get their way.


Then we moved on to spoken communication and began by considering why people need to talk at all. So I asked the students: “What am I Feeling right now?” After a little guessing, they admitted they didn’t know. Then I asked: “What am I Thinking right now?” After a little more guessing they admitted they didn’t know that either. Finally I asked: “What am I Doing right now?” There they had me: I was standing up in front of them and speaking as all could see. “But what,” I asked, “was I doing three hours ago when out of your direct observation?” Once again, they admitted they didn’t know.

The point of this exercise was simply this: even if I had been a family member, a loved one, a best friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, someone they knew really well who was asking, their answers would have been the same because moment to moment, we are all strangers. And moment to moment we will always remain that way.

The purpose of spoken communication is to keep each other knowingly connected by feeling adequately informed. Without it, we are in continual ignorance of what each other is feeling, thinking, and were previously behaving, unless we are (truthfully) told.

This is why the great sin of spoken communication is lying – deliberately falsifying the data for deception’s sake. If one can’t believe what one is told, then one can’t believe the teller.  Now spoken communication becomes corrupted and the relationship estranged. You can’t have trust without truth, you can’t have intimacy without honesty, and you can’t have safety without sincerity. 

That’s the job of spoken communication: to overcome the abiding ignorance between us through telling about ourselves -- sharing data about our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This is why people are such constant data gatherers: “How are you?” “What’s happening?” “What have you been doing?” “How was your day?” “Is anything the matter?” “What’s wrong?” We are continually seeking information to find out what was and is and will be going on. Spoken communication is part of how we get to know each other and how we keep that knowing up to date.

For this exchange of data to take place, two interpersonal skills are required: being able to speak up, share, and declare, and being able to shut up, attend, and listen. Non-talkers and non-listeners are very hard to communicate with. People have to be able both to send and receive spoken information.

In significant relationships a person who speaks up but never shuts up, or a person who shuts up and never speaks up, are both going to live in communication-starved relationships, the first not knowing the other, the second not known by the other. 


Spoken communication, however, is about more than just exchanging data. It is also about satisfying some basic information needs. Consider four: The Need to Know -- for Curiosity; The Need Not to Know -- for Ignorance; The Need to Be Known -- for Understanding; and The Need Not to Be Known -- for Privacy.

To appreciate the power of these four information needs, consider what can happen emotionally when for one party they are unmet.

The Need to Know for Curiosity.

When an adolescent arrives home two hours later than expected, the parent’s need to know has been denied. After enduring two hours of worry from ignorance and imagining the worst from not being adequately informed, the parent may be angry: “Don’t you ever keep us in the dark like this! You have a cell phone: call or text me when you’re going to be late!”

The Need Not to Know for Ignorance.

When their adolescent casually mentions that a good friend is occasionally shoplifting “for the fun of it,” the parents’ need not to know has been denied. Bound by knowledge they wish they didn’t have, they wrestle with confronting the young person or even telling the parents. “Don’t tell us everything about the risks your friends are taking. When you do, we feel burdened with responsibility!”

The Need to Be Known for Understanding.

When an adolescent explodes at parents about not being understood, the young person’s need to be known has been denied. Feeling lonely, estranged, even rejected, the teenager follows up with, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!” When parents listen with their minds made up or don’t listen at all, this treatment can cause the teenager to feel not worth listening to, and end up feeling painfully disconnected. “Just because you disagree with my decision, you could still try to understand!”

The Need Not to Be Known for Privacy.

When parents humorously comment on their 7th grader’s changing physical appearance and still walk into her or his room unannounced, the young person’s need not to be known has been denied. “Stop making fun of me, and give me the privacy I need!” Puberty is a life changing event that commonly creates a rise in painful self-consciousness and anxiety over how one’s body is going to turn out, and how peers may unkindly pay attention with teasing of their own.  Now privacy becomes more important. So as the young teenager told the parents: “Making fun of how I look isn’t funny! And knock; don’t just barge into my room! I need you to respect my space!”  


To complicate matters, common communication conflicts can arise from opposing information needs. For example, while parents have more need to know about the teenager's life outside of family ("What's going on?"), the adolescent has more need not to be known for freedom's and privacy's sake ("Why do you ask so many questions?"). For example, for peace of mind the teenager may need not to know any more parental fears ("I've got enough worries of my own!") while parents have a need to be known and give warnings about risks to beware ("We saw this TV report about a new danger to watch out for.") Communication is not always simple and easy. 


Finally, we touched on how female and male can sometimes learn to manage spoken communication differently from growing up primarily in groups of same-sex peers. For example, maybe a young girl grew up with female friends for whom relational strengths were most important, and so she and they spent a lot of time confiding with each other, creating intimacy. Maybe a young boy, however, grew up with male friends for who performance strengths were most important, so he and they spent a lot of time contesting with each other, enjoying competition. In the extreme, you can get the sensitive and sharing young woman and the strong and silent young man.

These are two good ways to grow up, but they can result in somewhat different patterns of spoken data sharing (of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors) as discussed at the outset of this blog. So in a high school romance, the young woman may wonder why the young man shares so much data about his actions and so little about his feelings; while the young man may wonder why she talks so much about her feelings and much less about happenings going on. "You're so sensitive," he says. "You're so not," she replies.

To end with a family example, I am reminded of a young person who tellingly observed: “Dad mostly asks me how I’m doing; but Mom wants to know how I feel. That’s why I go to her when I’m upset. He’s mostly good for help at solving problems.” In this case, the young person had learned to use the parents for their different communication strengths.

Spoken communication is a core human relations skill.The foundation is learned in the conduct of family relationships at home where young people practice transmitting and receiving information to understand and be understood, to reach agreement and resolve disagreement, to give empathy and provide support, to create closeness and connection.

In general,  how you communicate in your family growing up is formative; so practice now how you want to communicate in significant relationships later on. 

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

Next week's entry: Risks of Boredom through the Adolescent Stages