Mood swings. Fighting. Slammed doors. The silent treatment. Eye rolling.
Parents of teenagers often come to our office worried and frustrated about all of these things. The teenage years can be hard, and full of so many changes. And communicating with your teen during that time can seem even harder! Do you feel like conversations with your teen often end up in a blowout argument…one that nobody wins?
These communication struggles during the teenage years are to be expected. Your teen is exploring their own identity and is constantly “testing the waters” to see what they think and feel about an issue or experience. But, disagreements and fighting can be exhausting and often lead both sides to feel defeated. An important part of making these disagreements a little more bearable and more effective is validation.
Validating your teen, or anyone for that matter, does not mean you agree with their choices, opinion, or behaviors. It does mean that you understand what they feel and recognize why emotion might be coming up for them. Validation sends the message that it is okay to experience that emotion, which actually makes teens feel safe to be vulnerable with you. Vulnerability leads to greater honesty and openness.
Here are some practical steps you can take when you and your teen aren’t seeing eye to eye:
- Give your teen your full attention. Try to avoid drafting an email or watching TV as you and your teen are talking. Close your laptop, turn off the TV, and physically turn your body towards your teen so they know you see and hear them fully. If you can’t at that moment, be honest, and then find a time you can both come back and be fully present.
- Demonstrate understanding. You don’t have to agree with your teen to understand where they are coming from. Try something like, “It makes sense that you are angry…” Perhaps there are other things that have gone on in their day which are increasing their stress and anxiety. You can likely relate to this.
- Look for areas of compromise. Of course, there are going to be some non-negotiables with your teen. Communicate expectations and boundaries directly and clearly and then see where you can both find some small areas of compromise to work toward a solution. Be okay with solving problems “half-way” and continuing to work on them.
- Remember it’s okay to take a “time out.” Once emotions are heated to a certain level, no one can give their full attention to the other. This is when parents and teens often spiral into even bigger arguments and greater misunderstanding. Taking a time out allows for you and your teen to calm and soothe big emotions. Be sure to schedule a time to come back to the issue so as not to avoid the conflict or issue at hand. This can sometimes be further invalidating if your teen perceives you have “just forgotten” about something that is important to them. This is something we hear from teens in therapy a lot.
- Avoid blaming. The minute a teen hears “It’s all my fault”, whether you explicitly say this or not, they will likely shut down. Blaming creates a sense of shame and can spiral your teen into negative thoughts about themselves, which makes it almost impossible to see solutions or areas of growth.
- End on a strength. Do your best to end these hard conversations by pointing out some way you can see your teen is trying. Did they stay on the couch and talk versus going to their room and slamming the door? Recognize that and acknowledge it.
As humans, we are more likely to change when we feel like we CAN. Pointing out areas of growth and strength does not excuse an unwanted behavior, but actually encourages your teen to keep trying.
Hang in there. Effective communication is difficult and exhausting at times. It takes practice.
Do you have any strategies you use that have been helpful during those tough teenage arguments? We’d love to hear from you!
Blog written by Sentier therapist, Tana Welter, MSW, LICSW.