Parent and Teen Communication: It’s Complicated…

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Adolescence brings new, complex emotional experiences for teens, due to changes in their physical, hormonal, and social environments. Learning to understand and express these changes is an ongoing, up-and-down process. Here are a few ways to improve parent and teen communication.

In 6th Grade, I Was Probably Too Old for a Father-Daughter Dance…

I know I was a lousy date that evening, compared to my younger sister who smiled her way through the night. I pouted as we got ready for the church dance, telling my dad that the gold “E” initial necklace he gave me was ugly. The words “sucks” and “lame” were probably used.

My grumpiness that evening had very little to do with my dad, and more to do with the fact I was an insecure preteen who’d be in the doctor’s office the next day with the flu. Like most teens in the early years of adolescence, I struggled to identify my feelings. Was the burning in my face a fever? Embarrassment? Shame?

In the swirl of sensations triggered by the flu and attending a father-daughter dance during my most awkward years of life, I couldn’t tell. What I could articulate to my dad was, “This dance is so stupid.” Though, this was not the most significant part of my experience that evening.

Underneath the pouting, I felt uncomfortable with my changing body, braces, uninspiring fashion, and frizzy hair. I was embarrassed about going to a dance with my dad, even though he had a nice suit and was, in my mind, the least embarrassing parent to hang out with at the time (mothers and daughters, that’s for another day).

“While teens are learning to express and communicate new emotional experiences, parents are learning how to interpret and respond.”

Our church hosted the dance in the cafeteria at my new middle school. I was terrified peers at another event might see me, my dad, and the pale glow of my skin under the cafeteria’s florescent lights.

The Teen Years Are Full of Moments like These

Adolescence brings new, complex emotional experiences for teens, due to changes in their physical, hormonal, and social environments. Learning to understand and express these changes is an ongoing, up-and-down process.

On an internal roller coast ride, keeping it cool during the school day can drain teens’ reservoirs of energy. When backpacks hit the floor at the end of the day, emotions hit the ceiling.

Typically, the earlier years of adolescence are the most unpredictable. One day, your daughter may be confidently presenting her experiment at a science fair, and the next day refusing to attend a family dinner. Parents witness the external, chaotic expression of their teens’ rapidly evolving inner worlds.

They can feel blindsided, completely in the dark, and may never have the full context for their teens’ behavior. They know something else is going on, as my dad did at the dance, but only see tip-of-the-iceberg actions.

The words difficult, disrespectful, irrational, and impulsive are commonly offered as descriptors of teen behavior. Parents are called unfair, insensitive, and controlling. Sometimes, these are accurate descriptors (No doubt, I was disrespectful in the above and other scenarios). Yet, they oversimplify parents’ and teens’ experiences.

Parents Hope for Their Teens to Safely Thrive and Grow

Teens want their voices to be heard and emerging identities to be embraced. While teens are learning to express and communicate new emotional experiences, parents are learning how to interpret and respond. This can leave parents and teens reacting to surface events rather than accessing the emotional depth of a situation.

“Adolescence brings new, complex emotional experiences for teens, due to changes in their physical, hormonal, and social environments.”

This is no one’s fault and a given challenge of the teen years. Getting off the roller coast is not an option, but thriving on the ride is possible.

An environment in which families can thrive is one that de-escalates and safely holds high-intensity emotions, rather than fuels them. This can help break the cycle of reactive surface communication, creating a space for parents and teens to work through emotions and find strength for the next challenge.

Though my father-daughter dance was clearly an emotionally-charged event, the evening was not a disaster. Alongside my insecurity, there was my dad’s annoying calmness and kind smile.

I had to go to the dance, stop back-talking, and face the monsters in the cafeteria. I did so within the boundaries of the safe space my parents created for me to navigate the coming years.

Teens and Parents Won’t Always Understand Each Other or Be on the Same Page

The hope is that everyone has the capacity to grow in emotional intelligence. A few components of an emotionally intelligent home can build the foundation for skilled communication and emotional insight:

Welcome the Healthy Expression of Negative Emotions

Often, teens bottle up negative emotions because they worry it’s not okay to feel that way or that it’s a poor reflection on their character. This can lead to an explosion of built-up emotion down the road.

Show your teen that both positive and negative emotions are normal and okay to express. Directly express when you are angry or sad. This can help normalize your teen’s emotions.

Validate Your Teen

You may not agree with or understand your teen, but you can seek out the validity of their experiences given the context of their world.

Validation can work wonders in de-escalating and opening channels of communication. It prioritizes care and respect over proving a point.

Observe Your Teens’ Behavior Without Judgment

This component is helpful in breaking the reactive cycle. Judging can build up a situation to be different than it actually is, and we react accordingly.

I wasn’t mad at my dad when we went to the dance, but anyone could have made that conclusion based on my behavior. Get curious about your teen’s behavior before drawing conclusions and responding.

Listen Before Problem-Solving

Because some emotionally-charged situations can be uncomfortable, we naturally want to fix them and move forward, usually with the best intentions. Teens may experience this as being misunderstood. It’s important for them to feel heard before solutions are created. Sometimes, the listening is enough.

No parent is perfect, but my dad was close to a saint at the father-daughter dance. Miraculously, he got me to go to this dance and even give a half-smile for a picture. We were both standing on the edge of my teenage years, peering into the storm clouds ahead.

I could see it in his eyes, the concern, and confusion. Something had shifted, and I would no longer be his dance partner…at least for a few years. We made it through, and there’s a dance party on the other side.

Click here for more content by Elise Howell, LPCA!

Elise Howell, LPCA
Elise's passion is to collaborate with teen girls and their families in navigating the unpredictable years of adolescence, and supporting women in cultivating healthy relationships with their whole selves. She engages with clients' strengths to help clients process their stories, build skills to move them towards their goals, and reconnect with what’s most important to them in life. When she is not watching classic romantic comedies, Elise enjoys kayaking, hiking, and beach days with her husband. She loves all things Harry Potter and musical theater.

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