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Tips for Effective Communication with Teens
If adults want to engage in effective communication with teens, it helps to recognize and remove the barriers which create misunderstanding.
The thought patterns of adults and teens are basically different. This dilemma and the strategy to overcome it deserve the attention of teachers, mentors, parents and all adults who aim to affect teens positively.
Examples of Differences in Adult and Teen Thinking
Here are some basic differences in the way adults and teens think:
- Adults have much to say; teens want so much for adults to listen.
- We want to preach; they want us to teach—by our example and our personal stories.
- Adults constantly tell teens what not to do; teens constantly ask adults what to do.
- We want teens to say now where they will be later; teens want to text later when they’re on their way.
- Adults try to discover what’s wrong with teens; teens try to prove what’s not right with adults.
- Adults give presents to prove that they care; teens accept presence as proof that adults care.
Scientific Reasons for Those Differences
Since 2002, the findings of a study1 revealed some differences between the workings of adult and teenage brains--differences which directly contribute to the difficulty of effective communication. The research* is the work of Dr. Deborah Yurgelin-Todd, director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Adult and teenage volunteers were put through an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to discover how their brains would respond to a series of pictures. The significant difference in responses from adults and teens led to the following findings among others:
- Most of the times, teenagers do not correctly identify adult emotions (feeling) by the expression on their faces.
- Consequently, teens misinterpret what the adults are feeling and their responses will be different from what the adults expect.
- The frontal part of the brain--the part associated with thinking, planning, judgement and insight--is not fully developed in teenagers. The teen brain responds to emotional information with more of an impulsive gut reaction than a well-thought out decision. This explains why they do not always think of the consequences to their actions.
Dr. Jay Giedd2 at the National Institute of Mental Health adds that the part of the brain associated with muscle coordination--the cerebellum--also affects cognitive processes. The cerebellum is not fully developed in teens; so just like they can be physically clumsy, they can also be mentally clumsy. Dr. Giedd is concerned that the thumb may the only part of some teens' bodies that gets enough exercise, and that could be detrimental to their mental development.
Effective Strategy: Facilitate versus Invigilate
We realize now that the mental incapability of teens is natural and not always willful. We need an effective communication strategy that helps them develop with the least amount of friction between us and them.
Imagine a group of students in an exam room.
An invigilator is appointed to “keep watch”3 and his main objective is to prevent cheating. He helps them settle in—find their seats, get pencils and whatever props they need—but he does not offer help with the test itself; neither does he allow anyone else to help. He enforces the do-it-yourself laws, so the students pass or fail on their own. Some teens see their parents and teachers as invigilators whose only task is to keep them straight.
Instead they want a facilitator—“who helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision.”4 The facilitator encourages individuality and independence, but he helps.
The effective strategy for parents with teens is to facilitate versus invigilate.
Ten Communication Tips for the Parent Facilitator
Effective communication tips for the parent facilitator include but are not limited to the following:
1. Be teen friendly. Give up the notion that teens are nothing but trouble; keep before them the vision of productive, responsible, respectful adults that you are helping them to become.
2. Be firm. Uphold rules of honesty, obedience, cooperation and respect. These rules remain no matter how many times they are broken.
3. Be curious.5 This does not mean probing. Be curious in an admiring kind of way which lets them know that you are really interested to discover their confusion (don’t say that word to them) so that you can understand them better.
4. Be available. Accept the responsibility of keeping the communication window open; spend time to answer their questions and listen to their concerns.
Remember: Talk Don't Lecture
Almost every parent says at least 50% more than he or she should. Shut up. Remember when you were a teen and your parents lectured at you? And you thought, "Will you please stop; I already got the point!" Stop before your teen gets there. - Carol Maxym, PhD, Counselor
5. Be honest. Teens love honesty in adults. Admit that you’re stumped when you do not have the answer; admit disappointment when their conduct is unexpected and unacceptable; admit that you are learning in the process of helping. Honesty helps to win their confidence.
6. Be kind. They do not always want to talk when you think they should. Remember that they do not always understand how or what you feel, so their actions will not always match your expectations. Be patient, understand and forgiving. The expression of thanks will come later.
7. Be practical. Texting is the teen’s favorite mode of communication. Parents who learn to text have an advantage, but it is not the only option. Also encourage handwritten notes; initiate what you want them to imitate.
8. Be affectionate. Invigilators have to keep their distance; but facilitators can hug, give a pat on the back or a shoulder rub. Teens are very human and they want to feel loved. Sometimes they feel what they may not hear.
9. Be progressive. There is no graduating from the classes of parenting or communication. Keep learning from any source you can, including the teens themselves.
10. Persevere: Never let teens hear you say that you are too tired or that you lack the ability to continue communication with them. Perseverance makes a better teen and a better you.
1. PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain, Interview Deborah Yurgelin-Todd (January 31,2002).
2. PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain, Interview Jay Giedd (January 31, 2002)
5. Crabb, Larry: SoulCare Foundations 101: The Basic Model, A Roadmap for Entering the Soul without Getting Lost (©2014 ChristianCourses)
© 2014 Dora Weithers