What Causes Communication Problems Between Teens & Parents (& How to Fix Them)
“I haven’t said the right thing in the past two years,” said one dad at a recent workshop of mine. He was talking about a problem that many parents of teens can relate to–the seemingly endless opportunities for miscommunication. In the teen years, it can feel like the options for connection are either nagging, interrogating, or talking through a closed door.
Is communication a lost cause?
I don’t think so. Once you understand what causes communication problems between teens and their parents, you’ll be surprised how easily you can avoid power struggles and stay connected.
What causes communication problems between parents and teens?
To hear parents tell it, they are frustrated by their teens for not listening and for being disrespectful. Some parents report that asking their teens to something simple, like taking out the garbage or getting off their screens leads to a full-on battle.
From the teen perspective, what causes communication problems is their parents’ tendency to fix things instead of just listening. A girl who I worked with recently relayed this: “My mom is into meditation, so we all have to be into meditation. When I am freaking out, she tells me to take deep breathes! When I’m at a 10! Instead of just letting me vent, she immediately wants me to stop feeling what feels beyond my control.”
Both the parent and the teen have a point. Teens do have wild emotions, which makes communication that much more challenging. And parents are accustomed to being in fixer mode, robbing their teens the chance to vent.
So what causes communication problems between parents and teens? Mainly, all the different developmental changes happening in the teen years. The teen body is chaotic–change is happening neurologically, psychologically, and biologically. In this chaotic moment, parents may need to add to their communication skills if they want to stay connected to their teens.
Here are six common communication misfires between parents and teens and how to avoid them.
1. Kids live in the present: It’s essential to understand that at least some of what is going on here is a developmental thing. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of their brain linked to planning and scheduling, is still under construction in the teen years. For adults, a child’s behavior from two weeks ago is still relevant, but the teen has moved on. Two weeks ago might as well be a year ago!
Likewise, when we bring up the future, as in, “How are you going to get into college with grades like that?” it’s falling on deaf ears. When you try to motivate a teen by referencing how their future selves can be improved, expect an eye-roll, or be told to back off.
TIP: If you want to communicate better, embrace that your teen does not live on the same timeline as you do. Bonus points if you can see the beauty in their vibrancy. And if you can join them in their timeline now and then, you’ll be better for it.
If not, do your best to keep things concrete and in the here and now. Talk about this week and maybe next.
2. Teens are ruled by emotions: Back to brain development–In the teen years, teens are governed by the emotional structures of the brain. These are housed in the limbic system. The CEO of the limbic system is the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is a structure that is used to interpret danger. I mean this literally–the amygdala that used to perceive a threat from a tiger is now on the prowl for other risks, like your too-long look at your teen’s pimply face! Without a developed, rational prefrontal cortex to keep the amygdala in check, emotions run high.
Brain scans show us the impact that this “voice” has on teens. When presented with a stimulus that is unremarkable in both children and adults, the teen amygdala lights up. Where we hear a chime, they hear a gong.
TIP: IF you are trying to rationalize with your teen in this state, it’s useless. Instead of trying to communicate, Remind yourself, “This is the amygdala speaking,” and wait until your teen’s emotions have simmered down.
3. Teens are incredible observers and terrible interpreters. Teens notice subtle body language and change in tone, but because their brains are on high alert, they tend to misinterpret the meaning. One of my clients said to her daughter, with maybe a hint of concern, “Who is driving to the concert?” and her daughter responded, “Why don’t you trust me?!” She detected something in her mother’s tone, but she jumped to the worst conclusion.
TIP: The book Voice Lessons by Dr. Wendy Mogel is full of tips about how to communicate with kids at any age and keep their development in mind. If you don’t read it, keep in mind that teens are keen detectors of judgment. Judgment speaks louder than any praise.
4. Parents fail to make the transition from caregiver to coach. When kids are young, it’s easy to communicate as an authority. You are the caregiver who protects them and teaches them how to be in the world. But adolescence marks the beginning of a change in relationship, where your kids want independence and equality. When we communicate with teens as if they are young children, they may say things like, “You are such a control freak!” Or, they may stop talking to us at all.
TIP: To avoid this communication trap, check yourself. Are you making assumptions about your teen without asking him/her to weigh in? If so, try framing your communication with phrases like, “I’m curious about your take on this.” Or instead of assuming they need your help on homework, you can ask, “Do you need my help with anything?”
5. We ask the wrong questions. Some teens I worked with recently told me that the adults in their lives, from their parents to guidance counselors, often asked, “Are you okay?” They collectively agreed that this feels like something is wrong with them and their peers that they aren’t seeing. While I just said that they are bad interpreters, they do have a point. Adults seem stressed out, and that stress is passed along to our kids without us even realizing it.
TIP: I asked this insightful group what kinds of questions they want to be asked, and here is a good answer. “When I hear my mom talk to her friends, she asks questions that are related to what her friend said.” Teens want to be conversed with, not probed.
6. We forget what it’s like to be a kid. Two highly successful parents I know are always trying to get their sons to be more organized and to stop procrastinating. Fed up by their parents never-ending “helpful suggestions,” one of the boys said, “You do things well…for 45-year-olds. I’m 15!”
This desire to help and fix comes from the part of a parent who wants to protect. But to a kid, it’s perceived as a lack of trust or faith.
TIP: If your teen is doing okay enough, but his ways are less than optimal, leave him be. Bonus if you can acknowledge that his approach is working for him right now.
Now that you know what causes communication problems with parents and teens, you can shift even one of these habits. Your teen is under construction in almost every way, so this is why people may suggest not to take their behavior personally. The teen years are a beautiful mess of a time, but stay connected to that mess.
Use your teen’s ability to live in the moment to your advantage–even if you are guilty of some of these communication misfires, it’s not too late to change them. Two weeks from now, they won’t remember your old ways! If you want to take actionable steps to improve your relationship with your teen, schedule a free consultation here.