“How was your day?”
“Anything interesting happen?”
“Lots of homework?”
“My day was fine too, thanks for not asking.”
If you have experienced an interchange similar to this, you are not alone. Communication breakdown is one of the most common issues presented to counsellors and psychologists by desperate parents. Part of the problem is that we tend to look back on our own teenage years with rose-tinted glasses, refusing to believe that we were ever like this, choosing instead to blame tangible differences such as smartphones. While technology has certainly shifted the dynamic, it cannot be held to account for a breakdown of communication that occurs when the phones are in bags or pockets…so what then can be held to account?
The answer, in short, is science. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscientist from University College London, UK, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of adolescents and adults while they were questioned relating to decision-making. The study showed that teenagers rely on an area of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus, whereas adults use the front part, called the prefrontal cortex.
The superior temporal sulcus processes very basic behavioural actions, while the prefrontal cortex is involved in complex functions such as processing how decisions affect other people. Blakemore also asked participants to make decisions about other people’s welfare and timed how long it took them to respond. She found that the response time got shorter as the participants got older, suggesting that the older people found it easier to put themselves in “other people’s shoes.”
So now what do we do? We can blame science for the differences we encounter but those differences do not lessen just because we know they exist. The secret is a strategy. By employing these tips, you may find your child opening up a little more. These tips aren’t necessarily easy to put into place, but they are undoubtedly worth the effort.
- Avoid saying “I understand but…” Just by using that phrase, you are demonstrating a lack of understanding (in your child’s eyes). Try to put yourself in their shoes first and try to avoid the defence mechanisms flaring up.
- Avoid tricks or loaded questions. If you know that dishonesty in conduct was involved, do not pretend otherwise to try to trick your child into a confession. It is better to be upfront with the truth you know, as teenagers tend to see through ‘ruses’ very easily.
- Ask questions from a place of curiosity. Your questions should not be preludes to a lecture. Ask questions such as “If you did x, what do you think would be the consequence, as opposed to if you did y?” Try to understand their reasoning processes by encouraging critical thinking so that they can find their own way through – with your guidance if need be.
- Wait for the calm after the storm.
- Do not confuse listening to conversation. Often parents complain that their children do not ever want to talk to them when what they mean is their children do not like to listen when they are lectured at, rather than conversed with.
- Avoid going on the offensive or the defensive. As soon as either party feels accused, the conversation breaks down.
- Make the point once, not five times. We often speak a lot more than we need to, using analogies and repetition to reinforce a point. Think about how it feels for you in the work boardroom and apply it to the kitchen table.
- You do not need to act like a friend. Using teenage jargon is more likely to deepen the gap than lessen it.
- Watch your language. Negatives can creep in without us meaning for them too. Your language often reflects your concerns but being mindful of this can prevent it. For example, avoid using words like “never”. Telling your child that they “never” talk to you will make it true. Rephrasing it into a positive such as, “I really appreciate you taking the time to tell me about your day” is more likely to prompt similar behaviour in the future.
- Avoid minimizing their problems. Things that comfort adults, like the fact that “this won’t matter a year from now” does not comfort your teenager. This only creates a sense of isolation. The fact that it matters now is their reality, despite what you may know through life experience to be the logical truth.
- Adjust your expectations if the situation calls for it. If your child has demonstrated responsibility and maturity, you may wish to make a curfew later, for example.
- Choose your battles. This adage is a cliché for a reason. If you are going to create an argument, rather argue over an issue of safety (such as getting into a drunk person’s car) rather than the state of a bedroom where the clothes do not seem to make it into the cupboard.
- Give advice when it is asked for – but keep your wisdom to yourself if it is not. Sometimes it is more valuable to let a mistake be made and subsequently learnt from than to deliver unsolicited advice.
- Watch out for complaining. Every single time we, as adults, complain about our work, our marriage, the commute etc., we are indirectly communicating that being an adult, in short, sucks. Maybe it does, but this invalidates anything we want to communicate to our children regarding advice or input. They see us as not being the best sources of advice because we indicate that we are not happy ourselves.
- Develop consequences with your child’s input. Jointly decide on a structure of “punishments to fit the crime” and negotiate until you find a middle ground. Teenagers are more likely to buy into disciplinary systems when they had a hand in creating them in the first place. You may even wish to introduce the idea of ‘parole’, where they can work off the consequence according to what was agreed on in advance. This allows them to demonstrate good behaviour and work off their consequences earlier, thus reinforcing good behaviour.