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Hilal Her

How to Effectively Communicate with Your Teen

June 2023

Adolescence is a developmentally challenging time in the life of every person. For an average teenager, it is a crucial life stage where the growing social, relational and academic demands can add significant implicit or explicit pressure on them to perform well. These external expectations are coupled with rapid internal shifts in the range of emotions they experience, the need for belonging beyond their family unit, and the need to build their sense of identity. These needs are new and unfamiliar for the teens to experience and can lead to feeling anxious, frustrated, and stressed. They have many questions that are not neurologically well-equipped to answer. Teens undergo active adaptation and fine-tuning of neural networks, which connect the emotional part of the brain with the logical domain to help differentiate between different emotions and manage them effectively. In such a time, environmental factors are also an active influence on how a teenager will form their perceptions of themselves and the world around them, patterns of behaving and relating with others, which will become the blueprint for them in adulthood, and values and actions that they would derive their sense of individuality and esteem from. 

In short, there is a lot that is changing in a teenager’s inner and outer world at once, and they need all the help that they can get to navigate through this stage effortlessly. The richness and complexity of adolescence add volatility to a teen’s life. However, this is also the time when they are eager to learn adaptive skills in all the changing life domains. The nurturance and safety that their environment offers them is a deciding factor if a teenager would ask for risk or richness in their life. 
Teenagers can get wrapped up in their vastly changing inner and outer worlds, often leading them to feeling isolated in their struggles. Given that they cannot fully comprehend these changes, it can lead to a lack of effective communication from teenagers. As adults, parents can learn to become an active source of stability in their teen’s environment, as they are at an advantage of having a better comprehension of the developmental stage that their teens are going through. Parents can effectively connect with their teens and facilitate them in making them cognizant about their inner selves and needs. 
However, parents need to be made aware of the unique needs that the teen may have. Assuming these needs as general and the same for everyone would likely hurt the process of the healthy change in teens. Practicing curiosity in communication will lead to conversations that invite vulnerability and authenticity from both the parents and teens, which is critical to building trust and safety in relationships. In this way, parents can assist teens’ neurological processing of unfamiliar life changes and emotions in a safe and non-threatening way.  
Teen Communication: Bridging the Two Worlds   
Effective communication leads to better connections. It is an active process where the focus is on making room for and practicing interest in getting to know the thoughts, feelings and actions of the people in conversation, as opposed to one which focuses on the results of a conversation. It is ineffective to focus on saying your piece when the other person is not ready to receive it. The outcome of who was right vs. wrong, agreement vs. disagreement, personal agenda as opposed to the shared plan of connection, only what is being said while disregarding the personal and situational context mostly turns out to be futile. Following are some practical ways parents and care-providing adults can communicate with their teenagers in the context of their changing world and growing needs.
Practice Listening Over Lecturing
Teenage is a phase of rapid neural development and attunement taking place, leading them to experience emotional and physical growing pains. Long speeches about what they should learn from their parents, experiences can come across as nagging to them and would result in a communication barrier. Instead, they need to understand the life skill of making sense of their own experiences. Show your interest in their process by asking them directly, ‘Is there something I can do to help you feel better/support you?’, ‘What did you learn from this experience?’, ‘How did it make you feel?’, etc. Avoid conversation-halting statements like, ‘You shouldn’t have done that’, ‘You should know better’, ‘This is wrong!’, ‘What were you thinking!’, etc. Please show them your concern by your behavior rather than telling them that you care.  
Be Present
Teens need more positive attention from their adults than they can communicate. It inculcates in them a greater sense of belonging, their presence as meaningful in their relationships, sense of autonomy and worth and sets the context for effective communication, as their trust in the parents prioritizing them will help them reciprocate the same. 
Bring Down the Barriers
Be approachable. For teens, the most significant obstacle in communication is their emotional volatility. This can often spill over into interpersonal spaces, which makes them sensitive to criticism and can lead to explosive or withdrawn behavior. Ensuring your teen feels emotionally safe and open with you is crucial for an honest conversation. You can take the first step by the intentional and frequent use of emotional vocabulary while communicating. Normalizing talking about the full spectrum of emotions without judgment, shame, or the need to justify feelings helps bring down the emotional alarm for teens, relaxing them into engaging with you. 
Have regular emotional check-ins with your teen as a normal part of your day. Normalize that humans are capable of experiencing different and often contrasting feelings at the same time, and that is healthy. However, some emotions can be too loud, making us lose perspective. Help them mobilize their feelings into language, movement, and other forms of expression. Also try to be involved in shared activities that could give your feelings personalized expression, like games, painting, walks, etc.  
Pause, Stabilize and Respond
Parenting a teenager can be exceedingly demanding. On tough days, when a conversation with your teen is likely to result in an argument that can cause hurt, learn to step back to take a pause, connect with what you feel and what you want to communicate, and then respond accordingly. Feel free to take as much time as needed before you safely reconnect with your teen. Offer statements like, ‘I need some time by myself to think about this first’, and ‘Let’s take a break and talk about this another time when we are calm’. This communicates that their feelings are important to you.
Offer Clarity
Part of building trust with your teen is being honest with them about the risks and benefits of their choices and actions. They must trust that you both are on the same team. Help them build their assessment by asking them, ‘What do you think contributed to this happening?’, ‘What could be done differently next time?’, ‘What could bring you closer to your goals?’, etc. Offer constructive feedback by validating a positive quality, then something which requires improvement, and then a positive quality again. Be specific and use ‘I’ statements. For example, ‘I really admire how you pause and reflect before committing to someone. Some situations make it difficult for you to do this, like when you’re with your friends. It impacts your studies when you overcommit to hanging out with friends. I think you have maintained wonderful friendships, and I want you to enjoy them in balance with the goals that are important to you. What do you think?’
It’s not Personal
Effective communication is about doing your best to offer them safe navigation while they explore their inner world and turbulent emotions. The same way you did when they would explore the playground as kids. They need to learn about themselves through their experiences. It is essential that they can turn to someone who would offer them unconditional acceptance no matter what they discover themselves to be. HH

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