Transformational Dialogue: Guiding your Teen through Communication

In a previous post, I talked about adolescence as a time of transition for the entire family, especially the relationship between teens and their parents, and the important role that parenting has on later development. As a child moves into early adolescence (around 13-14 years), established routines between parent and child will shift and reorganize to accommodate the emerging identities for children and parents. A high degree of variability may exist in the way parents and children interact during this time, which may feel as though conflict has increased in its intensity and frequency, and may not show stability until late adolescence (around 17-18). It is important to remember that some degree of this conflict is expected, and as mentioned in my previous post, how parents approach their children is important during this developmental period. Because a certain level of conflict can be expected, we can prepare and support our teens’ transition through adolescence. One way of doing this is to engage in a healthy way to resolve conflict through communication.

     Transforming your relationship from one of a parent to a child, into a parent to a teen requires engaging in a dialogue. This assumes that communication goes both ways. To start, it is important to differentiate between understanding and agreeing with each other. The premise here is that both could reach a mutual understanding of each other’s perspective with or without agreement.  For example, your teenager breaks curfew and says, “I don’t understand why I have to be home at a certain time…I want to stay out with my friends and not have to worry about being home on time…(original problem statement).” In this statement, it is important to remember that use of the word “understand” may be placed in the context of agreeing and that he/she is making it clear that they do not agree with the established rules. Being reactive to anger and immediately placing a consequence such as grounding your teen may block any further dialogue, whereas permitting this transgression may serve to reinforce a repeat performance in the future. In order to balance understanding and agreement, you could serve to model this communication by saying, “I understand that you do not want to worry about curfew, that you enjoy spending time with your friends, and get upset when it’s time to leave (active listening and understanding)…however, showing that you disagree with our rules by choosing to break them is a behavior that I cannot support…(expressing disagreement).”

Within this modeled response comes another important component of fostering healthy communication, which is to let your teen know that you understand how they feel. This component of active listening is important because when you reflect to the other person that you understand not just what they said but also how they feel, this may open up the experience to engage in a dialogue. After listening, it is also important to be able to express how you feel about the behavior that your teen engaged in. Being explicit in labeling your emotions models a way to express emotions without any overt or covert hostility, as well as giving your teen a chance to understand how you feel and reflect this back to you as it comes time for her/him to listen. One way of expressing may be to say, “I am really disappointed and angry in your choice to break our rules…I became worried and scared for your safety when curfew time passed and you were not home…” At this point, you could encourage your teen to reflect back what they understood of your thoughts and emotions, and not necessarily disagree with them. A response from your teen may be, “I know you were worried because I wasn’t home when I was supposed to be, and that you are angry and disappointed at my decision (active listening and understanding)…however, I think that 8 p.m. is too early for curfew and feel that it is unfair for me to come home at this time when my friends are allowed to stay out until midnight…(expressing disagreement).” Typically, expressing disagreement is not done in the context of active listening because it may create a different listening stance in which the listener is forming a rebuttal rather than trying to understand the person who is expressing. For the sake of time, I included it in the examples above.

From the example above, it might seem that the goals for the parent (i.e., maintain safety and follow rules) and the teen (i.e., maximize time spent with peers and disagreement with parents’ curfew) are mutually exclusive. However, through the communication process outlined above, it is possible that the goals could be made compatible and the original problem statement could be reframed. For example, we could reframe the goal as learning responsibility, which includes learning choices in relation to rules (e.g., curfew), along with the resulting positive or negative consequences. Part of this lesson in responsibility may then be learning how to communicate and negotiate appropriately. The next step in the process would then be to engage in problem-solving and negotiation of rules. Within this step, it is important not to lose sight of the communication process outlined above. A possible response could be to say, “I understand that you think 8 p.m. is unfair and agree that perhaps we could talk about a new curfew time…however, midnight is too far of a jump given our goal to learn responsibility takes several steps. I propose that we start with 9 p.m. and perhaps work our way up as time progresses and as you are able to display responsible behavior…” You would then be explicit in what these behaviors are that constitute a responsible adolescent.

After coming up with a negotiated solution, the next step would then be to implement a negative consequence for your teen’s previous choice to show his/her disagreement through breaking the rules. In doing so, it is important to maintain a balance of firmness and empathy, and to ensure that the negative consequence be fair. Remember that your goal here is to teach accountability within the decision-making process. You could use this step as a teaching moment and explain the purpose of the negative consequence, particularly in learning how to make responsible choices in the future. Again, please keep in mind to continue using the communication strategies above. By engaging in a transformative dialogue, you may be able to use this transitional time as an opportunity to help your adolescent grow, as well as grow along with them to a more satisfying parent-teen relationship.


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