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Bridging the Gap: The Importance of Effective Communication Between Adolescents and Their Adults

Updated: Apr 4

In my career of working with adolescents, patterns emerge.  I think the most disconcerting pattern I witness is that teens are being raised by adults who were either never adolescents, or have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.  Because I know as a matter of science, we have all survived our teen years, I fear our empathy instincts have been worn down.  We have seen our children grow from complete dependence in diapers, evolve into elementary school kiddos who needed and actively sought guidance, and now have grown into these seeming monsters of hormones and emotions.  They do not wish to acknowledge we as adults exist, and when they do, it feels like it is either for money, car keys, or to tell us how horribly uncool we are.  Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that we were

cool… right?!

While we may have been raised by adults who told us, ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ how did that work for you?  Are there any behaviors you engage in today that you can trace back to what you learned when you were a teenager?

         I appreciate how frustrating it is to be raising teens, and yet this is an inescapable time.  While our teens seem to believe they have ALL THE INFORMATION, and their adults are nothing more than drooling, addled demons solely focused on smothering all fun in the world, many of us likely felt that way toward our adults.  So I ask that, rather than becoming frustrated or indignant as our adults did, please save space, patience, and understanding for your know-it-all.  A teenager benefits from adults who can remain grounded when they have lost their grounding. 

sketch of human brain

         The human brain does not begin to truly mature until they are approximately 25-years old, and this cannot be rushed in order for children to mature faster.  That said, emotionally impatient adults who possibly indulge unhealthy coping mechanisms can negatively impact their children’s brains as they age.  So while it feels easy to lash out when our teens are struggling, there is value in following Ayesha Siddiqi’s insights and, “be the person you needed when you were younger.”

 

Understanding Adolescence and Adolescents:

 

Adolescence is not solely for teens.  We begin that perilous path at around 10-years of age, and it keeps on going until age 19, according to latest insights from the World Health Organization.  It is more than just about growing hair, developing attractions to peers, and pushing back on authority.  Adolescence marks pivotal periods of transition.  And while it may seem like our kids are pushing us away, they are watching everything their adults do and don’t do. 

The best thing you can do when you are feeling overwhelmed that you and your adolescent are not communicating is to begin working to build bridges.  If you and your child have not been communicating effectively for a while, this is something that can be addressed.  Sometimes it may help to have someone else in the room.  Your therapist or your child’s therapist will be happy to help initiate effective communication.

The first step is to engage in effective listening.  Your adolescent will not waste their time with adults who they believe are uninterested, or closed off to insights.  What did you want from your adults when you were a teen?  As the old line goes, you have two ears and one mouth.  If you listen to your adolescent twice as much as you talk, they will be more likely to communicate with you.

If your child is in early adolescence (10-13), they will offer you small tests to see your response.  Neither of you may know it is a test, but it is.  Your ability to respond to their challenges when they are younger will determine if they talk to you when their problems age, and become more challenging or dangerous.

 

The Role of Communication:

 

Effective communication happens when all parties feel heard.  This is the cornerstone for fostering resilience in your relationship with your adolescent.  It will also provide you strength and insight in supporting your adolescent’s mental well-being.  When your adolescent(s) sincerely believe you are working to hear AND understand their perspective,

and you value their insights, they are more likely to consider you a meaningful resource as they navigate life challenges.

Conversely, a parent or guardian who is defensive and/or quick to react/slow to listen will find their child isolating more and more. 

Today’s adolescents face obstacles we never dreamed of, growing up.  One moment of sharing an inappropriate selfie can result in a lifetime of repercussions.  Choosing to try their friend’s ‘nicotine’ vape could result in their testing positive for drugs when they are trying out for a team sport.  These are real issues that our kids are facing every day.  And no, you do not have the answers.  But having the conversation is what matters.     

Lack of communication or misunderstandings is where secrets live.  A parent or

guardian who says that, no news is good news, may be taking a big risk.  When an adolescent feels isolated from their adult, it hinders their own sense of importance, well-being, and security.  While such conversations may make you uneasy before you initiate, it is possible to plan the conversations before real issues arise.

 

Challenges in Communication:

 

Despite the importance of communication, adolescents and their adults often face huge barriers in effective communication. Bruh, even if you find yourself Deada$$ salty, geeking out from your beefin’ and throwin’ shade, you’re wishin’ they would spill tea but are instead roastin’ you because their friends think that’s Gucci, it does not mean you talk smack back or ghost.   

Your teens have their own language.  You don’t need to bug out.  Take a chill pill, get the 411 from your home skillet, and exclaim Booya! as your kid begins to trust you, sharing all that and a bag of chips! 

The more present you make yourself, the more you will be invited in.  The more your adolescent trusts you, and you manage your emotions effectively, the more they will invite you in.  It is an infinity-level of trust.  Breaking it is easy, maintaining it is essential.

 

Strategies for Effective Communication:

 

1. Active Listening: Adults should practice active listening skills.  This involves asking questions and listening to the answer without cutting them off with a, ‘yeah, but…’  Providing your teen with undivided attention when they express thoughts and emotions you may find difficult to hear is how you get to have all the conversations, before they are in crisis. Avoid instincts to interrupt, defend your position, or jump to conclusions.  Just listen, take a breath or a pause, and offer meaningful, well-thought-out understand and compassion, without judgment.  Your teen may actually find you enjoyable to talk with!

 

2. Encouraging Openness: If you and your adolescent have been distant for a time, this is going to take time to rebuild.  Offer, and accept they are not running to your side to share. Your teen will come to you, as they are ready.  It will not be when you expect, it will be as they feel they need you.  Create a safe and non-judgmental environment, and remind your teen intermittently, that you love them unconditionally.  When adolescents feel comfortable

expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns, they will find you.  In order to earn it, you are going to have to be actively present with the many small drama stories you may not care about.  First, be present for the unimportant, and then they will begin to talk with you about more. 

 

3. Setting Aside Quality Time: Yeah but my schedule is harrowing, you are thinking.  Well, is working overtime more important than rebuilding connection with your kid?  Probably not, or you would not still be reading.  I enjoy wordle, too.  And absolutely, you are entitled downtime from your long days.  Your kid is having long days, too.  There are few things that are simultaneously more effective at and more easy than popping some popcorn and watching a movie together on the couch after dinner. 

Your kid knows you’re busy.  I am sure you tell them more than you realize.  That is why carving out time for them, doing what interests them is so meaningful!  If you don’t know what interests them, pay attention to what gets their attention.  If you still don’t know, ask! You may be pleasantly surprised because you also care.

Start with making sure you do family dinners (all electronic devices away for bonus points).  Plan to build upon this.  Things like family excursions they may think are corny but are willing to indulge, family vacations (can be budget-friendly), or shared hobbies, all of these contacts strengthens bonds and facilitates deeper conversations.

 

4. Educate Yourself on Mental Health: Both adults and adolescents benefit from understanding mental health and its importance. Do your research.  Talk with a therapist.  Depression and anxiety are real.  If you have concerns about your child’s wellbeing, please ask.  Normalizing conversations on mental health, sadness, and feelings of overwhelm could save your child’s life.  Focus on build coping mechanisms, many of which can also be done as a family. 

Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness!

 

5. Leading by Example: As discussed earlier in this piece, you are your child’s most important role model.  If you don’t want your kid smoking, smoking in the garage does not help.  If you don’t want your kid swearing, don’t drop f-bombs when correcting them. 

Demonstrate the healthy behaviors you want to see in your child. 

Emotional regulation and resilience can be modeled.  Lead by example.  Prioritize your own mental well-being, and encourage your child to be present with their own emotions.  Remember, talking about hard things takes the pain and the mystery out of it. 

 

The Ripple Effect of Effective Communication:

 

When adolescents and their adults engage in open, respectful, mutual communication, the benefits extend far beyond their immediate relationship. Strong family bonds serve as a protective factor against unhealthy or dangerous friendships, they inhibit the ease of drug use or abuse, and they open the door to meaningful conversations on mental health challenges.

Adolescents equipped with positive adult relationships and effective communication in the home are better prepared to navigate relationships outside the home.  This will lead to more positive connections at school, with peers, in college, and eventually in the workplace.

 

Conclusion:

 

While hard conversations are, indeed, hard, that is where best relationships start.  In the ever-more-intricate dance of adolescence, your child benefits from a strong home

base.  By fostering open, empathetic conversations, we not only bridge the language gap, we also nurture healthy communication in order to enable our adolescents’ mental well-being. Let's commit to creating spaces where the most important voices in our home can be heard.  Let emotions are validated as genuine, and strengthen connections through meaningful dialogue.  Plus, have some fun conversations along the way.

And if you need help from a professional, come and ask.  We are happy to help all members of the family.

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