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Parent-Teen Communication

As a marriage and family therapist my services are elicited to help couples and families improve communication. Although relationship dynamics between romantic partners and parents and their children differ dramatically, I am often struck by similarities when it comes to the breakdown of healthy communication. In marital relationships divorce is a common consequence of this breakdown. Far less often do parents and teens find ways to legally divorce one another, though the disintegration of the parent-child relationship can be equally heartbreaking for all parties.

Just as with a romantic relationship in its infancy, when children are young, parents spend much more time nurturing fondness, empathy, and admiration in their little glorious bundles of joy. Likewise, young children tend to be more affectionate and admire their parents deeply in their early life. This is the foundation of an emotional relational bank account.

As children grow into teens, busy schedules, sarcastic comments, irritability, disappointments and misunderstandings tend to erode the foundation and withdraw from the account. Just as in financial markets, it is important to prevent bouncing checks by investing in accounts often and taking the time to rebuild after a large withdrawal.
Relationship expert John Gottman has identified that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh each one negative to keep a healthy relationship balanced. Social learning theorist and expert, Gerald Patterson, also identified that there must be five positive interactions between parent and child to prevent rejection.

The consequences of rejection in the parent-child relationship are mighty. When there is a breakdown in healthy communication at home for teens, several elements can all be anticipated. Teens are more likely to join deviant peer groups, engage in rebellious and/or dangerous behaviors such as drug or substance abuse, develop low self-esteem, and even ultimately face the rejection of previously supportive adults.

In his work with marriages, John Gottman has identified four criteria that when present make a marriage vulnerable to divorce. He calls these “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” His research shows with certainty that when these communication behaviors are observed in a marriage the marriage will fail. Finding remedies for these criteria is necessary for relational success. It is no surprise that when these are present in parent-child relationships the household environment is also doomed. Thankfully, there are solutions to these nasty invaders.

The first horseman is Criticism. Criticism is attacking the other person’s personality or character. You may be thinking you have never intentionally attacked your child’s personality or character but chances are if you have entered into an argument with the intent of making someone “right” and someone “wrong,” you have.
If you have ever started a dialogue with your child with the phrases “You always…”, “You never…”, or “Why are you so….”, you have participated in criticism. To remedy this horseman the first step is to go back to that 5:1 ratio. Think of 5 lovely, wonderful qualities or behaviors of your child for every one complaint. You may even write them down and keep them to yourself or choose to share them with your child.
Next, make specific directions and requests. Avoid statements like “Why are you so lazy?” and replace with “Start your homework, now, please.” When parents make specific commands the groundwork is more readily laid for the children to have more admiration and appreciation by reinforcing compliant behavior rather than focusing on character flaws, which creates the opposite.

Teens are especially comfortable dishing out criticism to parents. Validate your child’s concerns while teaching an important lesson. If your child starts to complain about you in a critical way, let them know you would love to hear their concerns but first they need to list five positives the parent does for them for each complaint. This will help to get your child out of that critical mode, feel validated and heard, and reduce defensiveness on your part.

The next horseman is Contempt. Contempt is Criticism kicked up a notch. Contempt includes insults, name-calling, hostile humor, sarcasm, threats, sneering, and eye rolling. Contempt is psychologically damaging. To remedy Contempt parents should avoid sarcasm, threats, and yelling. Parents should model self-care and boundaries by monitoring their body for signs of flooding and taking responsibility when out of line. Good or bad, children do as their parents do. When parents take responsibility for themselves and their actions children will too.

The third horseman is Defensiveness. This is seeing yourself as the victim. Signs of defensiveness are “yes-butting,” cross-complaining, repeating self without listening to the other person. To reduce defensiveness in yourself and/or your child teach empathic listening techniques. Starting softly, maintaining eye contact, repeating what you hear the other person saying, avoid interrupting, sticking to one issue at a time, avoiding bringing up the past are all strong empathic listening skills. Consider asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • “What can I learn from this?”
  • “What are the core emotions being expressed by my child?”
  • “What does he/she really want?”
  • “Perhaps, is this just a puff of hot air that can be ignored?”

The last horseman according to Gottman is Stonewalling. Parents may think they are avoiding conflict by silence or creating distance but what they convey is disapproval and separation that leave their child vulnerable to getting support from deviant peer groups, substance abuse, or both. On the small scale, avoiding storming off, slamming doors, and silent treatment can prevent Stonewalling.

Another remedy is to hold family meetings. Family problem solving can be done with the whole family present or with just a specific parent and child. Family meetings can be held routinely at a regularly scheduled time or made randomly as needed. To make family problem solving successful the Four Horsemen need not be invited.

Using healthy empathic communication skills should be encouraged. Start the meeting by setting a goal. A good goal statement is specific, positive, small, and says what you want to accomplish. Can this goal be realized in a week or two? Use your goals to build steps to the next place that you want you and your family to reach with your communication.

Next, brainstorm ideas. Take turns, use humor, write down all ideas, and enlist all members’ opinions. Consider solutions by weighing pros and cons. Without throwing out an entire suggestion consider if part of the idea may be useful. Can suggestions be combined? Does everyone agree?

Lastly, write an agreement. Be short and specific, say who will do what and include where and how. Schedule a time to review the plan to see how it is working. Once you put all of your hard work into action try it for a limited time like a week and evaluate how your problem solving worked. Troubleshoot and make adjustments as necessary.
Families using this problem solving method early on tend to set the groundwork for a family that values its members, fosters appreciation, listens and responds appropriately without defensiveness, and makes each member feel positive about their contributions to the family.

  1. Gottman, J. (1999) The Seven Principles for Making your Marriage Work. New York.
  2. Patterson G. and M. Forgatch (2005). Parents and Adolescents Living Together: The Basics. 2nd Edition.

Patterson, G. and M. Forgatch. Parents and Adolescents Living Together: Family Problem Solving. 2nd Edition.

(First released 2/1/2012 by Cosozo Magazine at http://cosozo.com/article/parent-teen-communications)

Birmingham Maple Clinic | Michigan Mental Health