How To Stop Wasting Your Breath On Your Teen: Communicate Differently

When I talk to parents, I share a list of ideal behaviors and attributes that they might want for their kids. The list is long and filled with both the practical and the lofty. Practically, they want them to clean up, to be on top of their schedules and school work, to make eye contact, to prepare their own lunch. More lofty goals include things like being a kind, confident, independent person. 

The problem is that parents try to communicate all these things at once, every day. It may sound like this: “Please clean up your room…Don’t roll your eyes at me…I need you to clean your room and put away your laundry…Do you have your uniform for tomorrow’s game…Argh, you lost it! When?…I’m not getting you a new one…”

Pretty soon, the teen stops listening because in her mind, everything she is doing is wrong.

This long list of various ideals speaks to our good intentions as parents. But these good intentions may be the reason our teens tune us out. We become these demand slingers who are impossible to keep up with.

I’m not saying that these expectations aren’t legitimate. But I don’t think this is how we stay connected to our kids. Imagine being in this type of relationship to any other person you care a lot about: your partner, your best friend, your sibling, your boss. It’s easy to imagine how bad it would feel to be the recipient of a barrage of expectations and judgements.

How would it feel for your behavior to be under a microscope?

Granted the parent/child relationship is like no other: we know that there is not reciprocity until much later, if at all. But if the teen years are upon you and you’re slinging demands, it is likely that the relationship to suffer. Teens are especially sensitive to judgement; when they feel it, they stop listening and shut down. They also can’t really handle/remember all the things we want them to know and do because of their brain development.

It’s Time to Communicate Differently 

If you’re not having success getting your teen to grow or change a certain behavior, observe yourself in the next few days. Notice if you are a demand slinger. If so, it’s time to communicate differently.

I want you to visualize a soundboard, a device with about a hundred dials. Each of those dials is going to  represent a single wish (or gripe) about your teen’s behavior. Examples of “dials” include: cleaning his room, screen rules at dinner, setting his schedule for the week, telling you in advance when he needs things.

If you want to get through to your teen, stop trying to tune all the dials at once, and just pick one to focus on. What would improve your relationship the most? What is the most important change to make, that will have the biggest impact on your life at home.

I’ll give you an example here:

A mom recently was at her wit’s end because her twin girls are messy. She clarified by saying they cook elaborate meals and don’t do any clean up. (Good for them for cooking though!) They don’t clean their bathroom and their room is a mess. She wanted to know how to get them to do all of that.

My suggestion was to pick one thing of these three to start with, preferably the one where there could be an easy consequence. She chose cooking and I asked her how she would feel about telling them in advance that unless they cleaned at least half the dishes, they would not be allowed to cook.

What Will Change When You Communicate Differently and Use the Soundboard?

Parents of teens forget that in their own teen pasts, they probably didn’t clean their rooms or take out the trash without being nagged to do so. One thing that hasn’t changed about being a teen is that the teen brain is like a sieve.

But now that the pace of life has picked up and families are more spread thin, it’s even harder to prioritize and communicate clearly. But choose your dials and communicate them clearly. If the soundtrack in your home is a bunch of songs that communicate, “You’re not enough” the kids retreat. Though they may not show it, your teens are looking for assurance that you see them and accept them as they grow into people. Choose your dials on the soundboard, tune them one at time and over time, the “sound” that your kids hear at home will change.





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