This process of separating from the family in preparation for an independent adulthood is called individuation. Individuation usually looks like rebellion to parents. Although most parents worry when their teenagers rebel, it would be more appropriate to worry if they did not.
For teens, friendships become more important than time spent with the family. They need to work out their relationships with their friends to find out if, and how, they fit in. While this helps the process of separation, it is often interpreted by parents as rejection or rebellion. During this transition stage, teens tend to put their parents down. Sometimes they act embarrassed around their parents and families in public. Signs of affection that may have been a normal part of family life may suddenly become taboo.
Parents have an important task during the teenage years. They must let go of the reins and give a child freedom. During the early childhood years, parents are very involved in directing and telling their children how to behave. This control is necessary for safety and for teaching appropriate social skills.
As children grow into teens, parents must move away from a position of control to one of contribution. The transition is the most challenging feature of parenting during adolescence. It is critical that the teen has this chance to learn through experience about the world.
A parent's desire to protect and rescue must be avoided during this stage. Instead, teens need to get the message, both spoken and unspo-ken, that parents trust them and believe in their ability to cope in the world. On the other hand, parents still have a supportive role and must be available when teens need to talk about tough decisions.
How can you, as parents, give your teen the strength and skills to leave home and be successful? Effective communication provides a firm foundation for this process. Several princi-ples can help guide your teen's growth.
When teens feel they are being heard, they are much more willing to listen to your point of view. The result usually is a solution to a problem that satisfies both sides.
How can you let your teens know that you are really listening to them? First you need to believe that what your teen has to say is worthwhile and valid. You do not have to agree with the point of view. You do, however, need to show that you are really listening and trying to understand. You need to be sensitive, under-standing and show respect for your teen's point of view.
This is called empathy and it lets teens know they are understood and accepted even if their ideas may be very different from yours. An atmosphere where teens feel heard is crucial for their self-discovery and so very important during individuation.
You can show your empathy by using the communication skill of "reflecting" or repeating the meaning of what the other person has said. Until teens feel that their views will receive a fair hearing, they will not move to negotiate a problem. When you reflect your teen's feelings in a disagreement, they know that their per-spective has been considered as well. They don't feel so alone.
David, age 17, was interviewed for a summer job but was rejected. He returned home disap-pointed and depressed. Father felt empathy for his son and conveyed it effectively. The follow-ing are illustrations of "reflecting" responses:
"You really wanted this job."
"You feel very disappointed."
"Looking forward to getting a job and losing out is tough."
"You really wanted this job, didn't you?" After a moment's silence, David said: "It's not the end of the world. I'll find another job."
When Daniel told his mother that he had been insulted and pushed around by the school-bus driver, she decided to show her son that she understood his anger, hurt and humiliation. Any of the following statements would have told Daniel that his mother knew what he had gone through:
"It must have been humiliating for you."
"It must have made you angry."
"It must have been very embarrassing for you."
"You must have really resented him at that moment."
Strong feelings tend to be reduced when an empathic listener accepts them with understanding.
Solutions to problems are much easier to find when emotions are calm. Responding to teens in a non-judgmental way is also an important communication skill. Such a response contains neither praise nor criticism. Instead, it identifies feelings, recognizes wishes and acknowl-edges opinions.
The following exchange between a mother and daughter illustrates a helpful response to an emotional situation.
Darlene, age 13, came home from school in a very bad mood. She had a lot of homework, plus an assignment that she hadn't finished in school. She said she hated her teacher because she kept piling on work. Mother resisted her impulse to preach about responsibility and instead said "You do have a lot of work to do this evening. I imagine you must be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated." To her mother's surprise, Darlene answered, "I'd better start right away. I have lots of work to do."
This noncritical exchange between mother and daughter allowed the teen to reconcile herself to the situation. She was able to remove her-self from her angry position without any loss of face.
When parents and teens communicate in a healthy way, their words and feelings match. This is called clear and direct communication. In this type of communication there is no risk of confusion or contradiction. The following are three harmful communication habits that get in the way of healthy communication.
Double messages occur when we give two con-tradictory verbal messages together. A father might say "I'm so proud of your report card. Why did you get a 'B' in Algebra?" The double message is "I'm proud of you but unsatisfied with you."
Double messages also occur when the body language you notice contradicts the words being spoken to you. When a parent tells a child "I AM paying attention. I'm interested in what you're saying" while continuing to read the newspaper, the words are contradicted by the behavior. The double message is "I want to hear what you have to say but reading the newspaper is more important to me."
Clear, honest communication between teens and parents can cut through the confusion that conflicting messages produce. While this may feel uncomfortable at first, it will increase the chances of greater understanding and accep-tance of each other.Silence
When the refusal to communicate is deliberate, confusion, hurt and anger may result. Anyone who has ever been shut out by another person knows how painful this silence can be. When feelings are voiced, the barriers to communication can come down. Resorting to silence is a hurtful and unproductive tactic. It should be avoided.Put-downs
These remarks can be delivered directly or dis-guised as humor. Name-calling or putting peo-ple down by labeling them, ("Hey, dumbbell") can be very open and direct. Humor that ridi-cules or passes judgment is less direct but still hurtful. If parents try to be caring to avoid hurting someone, teens will be strengthened to respond in the same way.
The communication skills outlined in this article are just a beginning for those interested in improving their relationships with their teens. These techniques are not "quick fixes." The art of open and honest communication requires lifelong practice. Interested parents and teens are encouraged to read further on the subject. Several good books on this topic are available in local bookstores and at public libraries. Make an effort, as well, to seek out more information throughlocal parenting courses and workshops.
You may feel challenged when trying to maintain open and honest communication during the teen years of your children. However, such honesty brings rich rewards in reaching across communication barriers between teens and their parents.
Between Parent and Teenager,
Dr. Haim G. Ginott
I'm On Your Side – Resolving Conflict with Your Teenage Son or Daughter,
Jan Nelsen and Lynn Lott
I'll Never Do To My Kids What My Parents Did To Me,
Thomas Paris, Ph.D and Eileen Paris, Ph.D
You Can Say No To Your Teenager,
Jeanette Shalov, MS; Irwin Sollinger, Ph.D; Jules Spotts, Ph.D;
Phyllis S. Steinbrecher, MA; Douglas W. Thorpe, MS
The Family Patterns Workbook - Breaking Free from Your Past and Creating A Life of Your Own, Carolyn Foster.