– by Jennifer Norstrom, LMFT –
If you’re like most parents, you’d like your teen to be able to come to you with her problems. It bothers you that you don’t know what is going on when he is clearly upset. Watching your son or daughter walk briskly away and slam the bedroom door isn’t a good feeling. The truth is, it’s hard to watch your teen struggle from afar. Perhaps you’ve kindly tried to give advice, console, or give her an expert interpretation from your experience. Or you’ve felt hurt by being ignored and tried to teach him how to behave with respect.
If these approaches haven’t helped you to feel more in touch, you might want to consider eliminating some common roadblocks in order to facilitate more open communication.
1) The Interrogation Roadblock—Asking questions to find reasons for your teen’s feelings doesn’t change her experience. It’s better to allow her to say more by giving her space to just talk and staying connected by reflecting what you heard her say, such as: “It sounds like you are feeling really frustrated with the amount of homework you’ve been given in French class today.”
2) The Advising Roadblock—Offering advice or solutions that are uninvited is a sure way to shut the conversation down. Try to hold onto your advice reigns until he is done sharing his feelings with you, and even then, ask first if he would like some advice before offering your words of wisdom. Often teens just want to be heard, which can help him to facilitate coming up with his own solutions. Over time, this will help your teen to feel confident about either being able to work through problems on his own, or asking for help when he really needs it.
3) The Moralizing Roadblock—Blanket terms about what people “should and shouldn’t” do can stop the process of discovering one’s own unique perspective, needs, and boundaries. (“Children should always respect adults. Good girls ought to do it this way…”) In addition, if your teen is motivated purely by an outside or disconnected “should”, there is a good chance she will feel unhappy or that it won’t stick.
4) The Reassuring Roadblock—As much as we as parents would like to take our child’s pain away, or feel uncomfortable with the intensity of his emotion, trying to talk him out of his feelings or make the feelings disappear through reassurance doesn’t accomplish this. In contrary, letting him feel his feelings communicates that you are not afraid of the feeling, and by letting it be safely expressed, the intensity will naturally diminish and pass.
5) The Judging and Comparing Roadblock—“Well you are being pretty lazy. When I was your age I had to do twice as much all by myself!” Fear of criticism, judgments, and comparisons often drive teens far away emotionally. If this has been a communication habit for you, consider that your teen may feel very hurt by these types of words. A recognition and an apology can do wonders for repairing a broken connection.
6) The Diverting Roadblock—Distracting your child or changing subjects such as (“Let’s talk about something more pleasant”, or “How was dance class today?”) can communicate that her feelings are “bad” or “wrong” and make it less likely for her to bring up what she is actually feeling in the future. Remember that diversion from a feeling doesn’t make it go away, it just suppresses it and can add to the intensity of it so that it can feel bigger and scarier than it needs to be. If you notice that you have a hard time tolerating negative feeling states, consider getting some support to explore your possible fears and concerns.
As a concerned parent, it may be hard to just listen and reflect what you are hearing so that your teen can come up with her own solution. At the same time, you may be the one that has some needs and feelings of your own in response to your child’s behavior. While it’s perfectly normal to have hurt or angry feelings in reaction to feeling like you’ve been getting the “cold shoulder,” the best way to facilitate trust is to communicate your interest in offering non-judgmental support. Once your teen has felt heard and understood, he is much more likely to hear your own feelings and needs. From there, collaboration and problem solving can be much more effective.