Communication: It’s A Practice

“My kid/parent (insert whichever fits) just doesn’t listen to me”, I’ve heard it more times than I can count. In fact, I thought it myself quite a few times while raising my own son and I am 100% sure that he thought it of me every now and again. One of the biggest challenges for teens and their parents is effective communication. I don’t mean talking and hearing, I mean exchanging information by speaking with clarity and listening with curiosity and empathy. It is not always easy and I certainly don’t profess to have fully mastered it. In fact, I don’t think it is possible to fully master it. Effective communication is a “practice”, something that gets better with repetition but always has room for improvement.

Practicing

And much like practicing a musical instrument, practicing effective communication means that sometimes we are going to make mistakes. In fact, early on, we are probably going to make a lot of mistakes.

Let’s follow the thread of that analogy a bit further. When learning to play a musical instrument it is often helpful to start by becoming acquainted with the instrument itself before delving into skills and techniques. How is it put together? How does it work? So let’s look at how effective communications is “put together” and what makes it work. Communication, by definition, involves at least two different parties. In fact, the Latin root of the word communicate literally means “to share” or “to make common”. Communication entails sharing meaning with one another, which in itself requires that the idea being communicated be shared in a way that can be understood by the receiver of the communication. This is the first misstep that most of us take in trying to communicate with each other. We speak from what we know and are experiencing without thinking about how the other person is receiving the message. What I am suggesting here is that, in order to communicate effectively, we first need to get to know our audience, and teens and parents of teens can each be “a tough audience”.

As the parent of a teen, what makes you a “tough audience”?

Parents of teens are deep into “adulting” and are often operating at the brink of parental burnout, a term first coined in the 1980s and the subject of much current research. It is a daunting task to juggle the everyday pressures of being financial provider and caregiver, mentoring and coaching a teen into adulthood, nurturing one’s own personal relationships, dealing with professional responsibilities, and finding time to care for oneself. If you are like most parents you are busy…and tired. As your child reaches their teen years, the financial realities of paying for their continuing education and the real-life implications of your teen’s burgeoning independence add even more stress. Talk to most parents of teens and they will tell you that they feel immense pressure to be “perfect” parents and that the responsibility of parenthood can sometimes be overwhelming. Most will also share that they do not feel like they have the time or the energy to be present for their teen the way they would like. Some might even admit that they are struggling to let go of their own expectations for their teen and that seeing their child as a separate, distinct, and unique individual and treating them accordingly is difficult. All of them are dealing with the prospect of having the child that they have cared for over the past 18+ years move on to live their own lives. Grief around empty nesting is real. Bearing all that in mind, consider for a moment how difficult it might be to connect with you – to really connect – and communicate.

As a teen, what makes you a “tough audience”?

Well, some of it has to do with biology and chemistry. Part of the maturation process from childhood into adulthood involves biological and chemical changes in the brain. Your adolescent brain is literally being completely rewired in preparation for adulthood. Old, no longer useful neural pathways are being disconnected, while others are being reinforced. Hormones are reshaping not just your physical body but your brain as well. These changes are, in part, what makes you highly creative problem solvers, extremely curious, intensely passionate, and, in my opinion, amazing teachers. The rewiring process takes time, many years in fact, and that transitional period often causes teens to be forgetful and sometimes emotional. The educational pressures on students also ramp up significantly during the teen years, as do the complexities of human relationships, both platonic & romantic. Ask most teens how they are feeling and they will tell you that they are busy…and tired. In addition to that, teens are also grappling with some difficult and perplexing existential questions: Who am I? Where do I fit in? How do I contribute? More on those in a later blog, but for now, suffice it to say that teens, like their parents are in a challenging developmental period. So, it is not surprising that you too can sometimes be difficult to connect with.

There is another key element to effective communication – timing. If the other party is not is a position to receive the message, perhaps because their focus is elsewhere or they are in a negative headspace, even the most expertly crafted message will not connect.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Communication: Practicing Skills & Techniques

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