3 Ways to Kill Communication With Your Teenager: Part 2
In the previous post, we began a short 3 part series on how parents often make the task of communicating with their teenager much harder than it needs to be. No one does this knowingly or on purpose (at least I hope not), but still, it happens, and it happens quite a lot.
If you haven’t read the last post (why not go back and have a quick read) it was about parents failing to validate their teenager’s feelings and how that can create a genuine obstacle to open communication. In this post, we are going to look at another very common killer of communication between parents and teenagers – Overreacting Parents.
There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty that goes with parenting teenagers. One of the ways this anxiety most commonly expresses itself is through parents overreacting to their teenager’s words or behaviour. It’s like there is a big dam of hope, fear, uncertainty and helplessness somewhere in all parent’s psyche. Every now and then a teenager will do or say something that stirs up these feelings and parents can’t help but let them out in any number of ways. Unfortunately, the responses are not measured or considered, but rather gushes of parental angst which has more to do with the parent’s needs than the teenager’s.
Learning to respond in a measured and proportional manner to teenagers is one of the most important skills parents can learn. It is not easy but it is important.
Teenagers are very sensitive to unwanted stress, and an overreacting parent is just that – unwanted stress. Overreactions aren’t always negative either. Teenagers can be put off by parents who are overly concerned just as they are discouraged by parents who are unjustly harsh. As one teenage boy said in a radio interview about being attacked by a shark and not telling his mother;
Interviewer: ‘She wouldn’t have been interested?’
Teenager: ‘No she would have been too interested!’
When Parents Overreact
To Bad News
A teenager tells their parents that kids who used to be her friends are now picking on her and being mean to her at school. A parent’s first reaction is to want to protect their child.
Motivated by the need to protect their ‘little girl’ and appease their own feelings of helplessness the parents demand that their daughter tell them who the girls are and exactly what happened. Then armed with a list of names and dates they contact the school and demand some action be taken, or worse they contact the other girls’ parents.
So now not only does the teenager have to deal with the emotional pain of being isolated at school, but she also has to deal with the issue of becoming the subject of a public inquiry, and the possible ramifications from the girls involved who won’t take kindly to any investigations. None of this makes the teenager’s life any better or easier. So she makes a note to herself “Don’t tell mum & dad next time I have a fight!”
When parents overreact and want to try and fix everything they often end up making the issue bigger than it needs to be. As in the example above rather than offering their daughter the chance to say how she feels, what she thinks has lead to the situation, and how she will handle it, the parents overreact and hence the girl feels even more out of control than she did before telling them.
To Bad Behaviour
Teenagers have on the odd occasion been known to behave badly.
Seeing our offspring behave badly can generate various emotions in those of us who are parents. One of the most common is anger. Teenagers seem to have a gift for knowing exactly where a parent’s anger button is and just how hard to press it. Too often parents are the ones who are incapable of acting like an adult and controlling the way they manage their emotions. When the teenager flicks the angry button parents respond instantly with loud, ranting, demonstrations of anger. So now the teenager’s bad behaviour has sparked adult bad behaviour and the situation descends into relationally destructive argument territory from there. It is this scenario that words will be said that can not be taken back which result in real relational damage.
Assuming one of the tasks of parenting is to respond to bad behaviour in a manner that produces correction and positive change, it would be fair to say that losing your cool does not aid in the task of parenting. Firstly it models to teenagers that conflict and disappointment are dealt with by yelling, accusing, name-calling, or whatever particular expression your anger chooses to manifest. Secondly, you send a message to your teenager that bad behaviour can be a way of effectively manipulating you and getting back at you. And thirdly, you communicate that mistakes, accidents, and misbehaviour, all result in a screaming match or harsh punishment, so best keep things secret if they want to keep the peace.
Anger is a real and powerful emotion which will affect us all, especially when dealing with teenagers, so planning not to get angry is neither realistic or healthy. However, we can plan on how to deal with anger when it occurs. One choice is to say the first thing that comes to mind and get it all out. Another option might be to take a few deep breaths, request to talk about it later, and walk away to work through your thoughts and feelings. Willful misbehaviour should be disciplined, but yelling or issuing overly harsh punishments are not effective forms of discipline. Teenagers have a keen sense of right and wrong along. An easy way to lose your teenager’s respect is to constantly over-react when they disappoint you.
To Teenage Disclosure
A son tells his mum that he really likes a girl. Mum has been waiting for this moment for years. At first, she is filled with excitement that her little boy is growing up. Then comes the curiosity as she eagerly desires to know who she is, what she looks like, why he likes her? Next comes the fear and paranoia: have they kissed? Will they have sex? Does he know about contraception?
All of these feelings come flooding out in a barrage of questions making the young boy wish he had never opened his mouth as he retreats in embarrassment. For the next few days mum tries to act naturally by un-naturally hovering and asking leading questions like ‘So anything you’d like to talk about?’ or ‘Have you and your father had any special chats lately?’
It is hard for parents when their teenage children start creating some relational distance from them. They start to miss their child and can feel left out of what is one of their most precious relationships. So when they get a little nibble of information the tendency is to try and grab as much as possible as quickly as possible. Not realizing that their own need to connect and be involved is actually driving their teenager further away.
Teenagers need relational space from their parents. They don’t need parents’ to be distant, they just need them to respect their space.
Effects of Overreacting
To put it simply every time you overreact you significantly decrease the chance of your teenager being open with you in the future.
When you consider it from the teenager’s perspective, life is hard enough without having to deal with emotional barrages from parents. So imagine for a second you are a teenager, this is how you are going to think when your parents keep overreacting:
- If a situation is bad a shouting parent doesn’t make things any better, so why tell them?
- If I am already feeling bad about myself how does having a parent adding another handful of negative labels help?
- The situation is bad but it will pass, unless my parents get involved then it will become bigger than Ben Hur (whoever he was) and it will drag out forever, so isn’t it better to keep them out of it?
- I’m struggling to work out how I feel myself, having to answer mum’s 20 questions every day isn’t going to help, and she will embarrass me anyway, so why should I tell her?
- My parents are always telling me to act responsibly and think for myself, but every time I say or do something they disagree with it ends up in an argument, aren’t I better off keeping my thoughts to myself?
While it is not always easy, choosing to pause and think before responding to your teenager can do more for your relationship than you can imagine. Sometimes less is more when it comes to parenting, particularly parenting teenagers. If in doubt why not think about it for a while and then choose the most appropriate response.
Please let us know your thoughts about finding the balance between responding and overreacting to teenagers in the comments below.
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