Written by Cheryl Maguire
“Mom please stop interrogating me.”
My daughter says this to me more often than I care to admit. I ask a lot of questions because she does not give me much information. So I’m left wondering, how could I change?
As a mother of twin 15-year-olds, I often struggle to find ways to effectively communicate with them.
A recent research study done at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explored ways for parents to improve communication with their teens. Dr. Victoria Miller, psychologist, and author of the study explained some of the prompts used in the study that helped parents and their teens promote reciprocal communication instead of one way. She also discussed common mistakes parents of teens make when trying to talk to them.
Common parenting communication mistakes
- Focusing only on problems. “One of the biggest mistakes parents make is that they tend to focus only on problems like when our teens make a mistake or don’t live up to our expectations rather than also communicating with them about their teens' strengths and what is going well. We can sometimes forget to do that in the busyness of daily life,” says Dr. Miller.
- Asking too many questions or offering unsolicited advice. Dr. Miller explains that another mistake parents make is giving advice and lecturing which can backfire and cause teens to shut down especially when they didn’t ask for advice. It can teach them that they can’t handle problems on their own which can get in the way of their confidence. It is better to wait until they ask for advice.
Teens can feel that parents are too controlling when they ask too many questions. They can also feel as if they are being interrogated instead of having a conversation, causing them to shut down.
- Letting emotions get out of control. Dr. Miller says that when your teen comes to talk to you about a problem, it can be difficult to hide your emotions. She suggests trying not to get angry or upset but instead focus on the fact that they were willing to talk with you. This will help to keep those lines of communication open by listening and offering guidance when asked.
- Turn off “the parent alarm”. Parents may react emotionally when their teen tells them something upsetting. “When your teen comes to you saying something like, ‘Tom asked me out,’ a parent’s first reaction might be, ‘my child’s too young to date,’ but instead, try to use this opportunity to navigate conversations about how to have a healthy relationship,” says Dr. Miller.
- Don’t over-empathize. Dr. Miller says it may seem counterintuitive to not over-empathize with your teen. But it can backfire. She offers the example that if your child comes to you and says they got in a fight with their best friend, you might want to jump to the rescue and say “Good riddance! I didn’t like them anyway, you’re better off without them.” But if they make up the next day, your child may be too embarrassed to come to you and say they resolved their differences.
Ways to improve communication
According to Dr. Miller, one reason parents make these mistakes is because there are a lot of negative portrayals of teens in the media and in our culture.
“You get the eye roll ‘oh well she’s a teenager.’ Which can cause parents to really worry about the teenage years and focus on the problems because they worry about their teens and they want them to do well and succeed,” says Dr. Miller.
It is important to remember that it is normal for parents to have some challenges communicating with their teen.
- Focus on how the teen years are an exciting time. Most teens are well-adjusted, and they have good relationships with their families, peers, and they contribute to their communities.
“I think shifting the focus on how well adjusted most teens are and remembering that adolescence is a positive time in development and very exciting is a good thing that will help to improve communication with your teen,” says Dr. Miller.
- Focus on strengths. “It is important to notice and talk with your teen about his or her strengths” says Dr. Miller.
She explains that strengths don’t mean what they are good at or what they have achieved but rather the qualities about your teen that will contribute to becoming a healthy productive adult. For example, if your daughter is a star soccer player, think about what it is that makes her good at it, like her work ethic or being a good team player.
“It feels good to notice what is going well for our kids instead of worrying about that test that didn’t go well or that she is upset with something with a friend,” says Dr. Miller.
- Allow for independence. Dr. Miller explains that during adolescence, teens are trying to separate themselves from their parents – they might do things like walk away when you are trying to have a conversation, or keep ten feet behind you at the mall or focus on their phone when you are trying to have a conversation.
“This is really because teens need to see themselves as different and separate from their parents in order to figure out who they are and to become more independent. This can make parents feel like they don’t matter but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says.
- Use conversation prompts. Dr. Miller’s research study used conversation prompts to help the parent and teen facilitate conversations that focused on strengths. The parent/teen pair were instructed to take ten minutes together and look at examples of strengths and then come back together and talk about it.
Dr. Miller explains that prompts included things like:
- Why did you choose these strengths for you and the other person?
- Give examples of ways the other person demonstrates these strengths you choose.
- Did the other person choose strengths that you didn’t expect?
“They both gave strengths for each other which was the reciprocal aspect of the intervention that was really interesting and unique” says Dr. Miller.
She explains that by shifting to the positive it can help parents and kids feel better. It doesn’t mean your teen doesn’t have weaknesses, but the key is to support your teen and use their strengths to address those limitations.
She also stresses that it is important to shift your thinking of ‘strength’ from achievements and what you are good at to who you are as a person.
Cheryl holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Washington Post, Parents Magazine, AARP, Healthline, Your Teen Magazine, and many other publications. She is a professional member of ASJA. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05.
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