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4 Basic Needs That Drive Family Communication

Curiosity, ignorance, intimacy, and privacy each motivate what is said or not.

Key points

  • The need for verbal communication is the need to satisfy basic information needs.
  • There are four basic information needs: to know (curiosity), not to know (ignorance), to be known (intimacy), and not to be known (privacy.)
  • Information needs can conflict—for example, the parent's need to know can conflict with the teenager's need for privacy.
  • On all four counts, verbal communication is not simple; it takes talking about and understanding the information needs that are in play.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

No question: Between parent and adolescent, two-way spoken communication counts—regularly exchanging information to keep each other adequately and accurately informed, sharing wants and needs, and resolving normal disagreement.

However, like most “truisms” this advice doesn’t tell the whole story. It leaves a lot out because conducting spoken communication is more complicated than just keeping up ongoing conversation.

4 Information Needs

To appreciate this complexity as it bears on the parent/teenager relationship, consider verbal communication as a mix of meeting four information needs that adults and adolescents must continually manage:

  • The need to know—for curiosity “I want to be told about this.”
  • The need not to know—for ignorance: “I don’t want to be told about that.”

(These two needs can sometimes conflict.)

  • The need to be known—for intimacy: “I want to be truly understood.”
  • The need not to be known—for privacy: “I don’t want to reveal everything.”

(These two needs can sometimes conflict.)

Let's consider these needs one at a time.

1. The need to know.

Verbal communication is primarily concerned with exchanging data about feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Parental curiosity about their teenager is constantly interested in all three kinds of information.

  • “If I know about you emotionally, then I have some knowledge of your wellbeing.”
  • “If I know about what you are thinking, then I can understand your motivation.”
  • “If I know about your actions, then I can keep up with what you’re doing.”

Parents can declare the basics of what and when they need to know with their teenager, perhaps including the following. “Whenever you’re stuck, confused, overwhelmed, in trouble, in danger, feel unwell, or are seriously unhappy, please let us know so we can give you our support.”

2. The need not to know.

No parent wants to have a daily transcript of everything going on in the adolescent’s inner and outer world of experience. “You don’t have to tell us everything, just the important things.” The more they’re told, the more they have to think and worry about.

Then there are parental warnings about adolescent risk-taking that the teenager may not want to hear. “Stop telling me! If I considered everything I’d never try anything!” Denial of danger sometimes enables acts of everyday daring.

Denial allows people to proceed unmindfully, like those of all ages, tired of quarantine, who impatiently reclaim social freedom during a pandemic that shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon. “It’s not there.” “It’s going away.” “It’s not that dangerous.” “I know enough to stay OK.” “If I’m careful, it won’t happen to me.”

There’s no arguing with the need not to know as denial because it won’t let cautionary data in. “I won’t listen to what you’re saying!” But denial doesn’t make threat go away; it only amplifies the danger by encouraging ignorance.

So, if parents are concerned with some harmful possibility in their teenager’s life, better than trying to scare the young person away from danger with alarm can be expressing concern for the adolescent’s wellbeing and explaining why. “To reduce the possibility of catching the virus, we believe it’s best for you to wear a mask when out in public.”

3. The need to be known.

Individual change can be estranging in a relationship when the other party doesn’t grasp the transformation one is growing through. At such times the changing person can feel disconnected, lonely, and misunderstood.

You can see this when a girl or boy enters adolescence and the parents, who used to be so knowing of the little girl or boy, seem now not to comprehend what is going on. They wonder: “What’s wrong with you? You’re so disorganized and distracted now, you can’t remember anything!” For the teenager, one compelling gift of adolescent peers is how they can relate to what it’s like being you. “My friends understand feeling overloaded when my parents don’t!”

With the onset of adolescence, both parent and teenager can feel more estranged as the coming of age passage changes the child, the parent in response, and alters the old relationship between them. Now in need of more understanding than before, truly listening to each other is what both need to do.

4. The need not to be known.

The older the adolescent, the more private her or his more independent world becomes. Privacy protects freedom from being fully known. “What I choose to tell is up to me, not you!” Thus while the child may welcome parental questions as expressions of older interest, the adolescent may see them in less favorable terms—as invasive of privacy and emblematic of adult authority. “Stop asking me about so much!” But if parents have a powerful need to know, what else can they do?

Well, they can use requests instead of questions. For example: “I would really appreciate if you could tell me more about what happened,” “If you feel like it, I’d love to hear how that experience turned out,” “It would ease my mind if you could help me better understand.”

While questions can feel like commands, requests can seem more like courtesies, honoring the teenager’s ownership of personal information. Short of making a request, but better than abrupt questions, parents can explain their interest: “The reason I’m asking is not to pry, but from concern for your safety.”

Communication Isn’t Simple

Both parent and teenager have the same basic information needs—for curiosity, for ignorance, for intimacy, for privacy. Each need can be challenging to satisfy by itself and more so when they conflict. Some common examples: When the parent’s need to know is opposed by the teenager’s need not to be known; or when the parent’s need to be known is opposed by the teenager’s need not to know.

At such times of complexity, it’s worth discussing what’s happening in their communication and what accommodation can be made.

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