The Communication Gap
Ask parents of adolescents their biggest parenting challenge, and in all likelihood the answer will have something to do with communication.
Ask adolescents their biggest challenge with their parents, and in all likelihood the answer will have something to do with communication.
Whether the tussle of the day-or hour-relates to homework, picking up bedroom clutter, after-school activities, curfew, or what's for dinner, communication between parent and child-or lack thereof-is central.
"They never listen to me," "They don't care what I think," and "They don't talk to me" are common refrains among parents and young people alike. Each feels unheard and misunderstood by the other. These issues are at the core of the communication gap that seems to plague generation after generation. One has to wonder just how many disagreements have occurred over past decades-even centuries-between parents and young people because of failed or ineffective communication.
Simply because effective communication skills are foundational to a strong parent/child relationship, indeed any relationship, they demand a good deal of time and attention.
Communication consists of both talking and listening; effective communication requires skills in both areas. In addition, body language, non-verbal communication, is involved in both talking and listening: facial expressions, gestures, posture, kinds of breathing, eye contact, and distractions.
Some adolescents who participated in the Institute for Youth Development's (IYD) focus groups had these comments about talking with parents:
"I just wish they talked. I mean, I'll come down for breakfast and go into the kitchen and get some cereal or something and my Mom will be talking to my Dad. They'll get all quiet the second I come into the room. I ask, 'What are you guys talking about?' and Mom will say, 'I'm just talking to Dad.' I think, 'Well, okay, excuse me!' I just want to know what they're talking about because it seems like they are talking about me, and I just kinda want to know what they think I'm doing wrong or what I'm doing right."
"I wish they would talk to us instead of just telling us what to do."
"[We want parents to] tell us what's going on, not just be in a bad mood."
"Either parents don't talk about it or they shout about it. If they could use a calm tone it would help."
"Don't lecture me when I ask questions and assume I want to know because I'm already doing stuff [they don't want me to do]."
"I wish my parents would talk about things I care about. I'm not interested in the same things they are, but that's all they seem to want to talk to me about."
While most of us are better at talking than listening, there are some points to keep in mind that will help us become better communicators when we talk:
- Tone of voice and emphasis on words can dramatically affect the message the listener receives, regardless of the actual words spoken.
- Word choice can encourage and inspire or devastate and degrade.
- A calm, soft voice or harsh, loud voice affects both the speaker and listener having the power to diffuse or incite a difference of opinion.
- Asking questions requiring "yes" or "no" answers discourages conversation and, therefore, communication.
- When discussing volatile topics or issues on which you and your child may disagree, use "I-words" rather than "you-words." Focus on your own thoughts and feelings rather than addressing what your child's actions or what you believe your child's thoughts and attitudes to be.
- Ask your teen's opinion about specific things to encourage dialogue and show respect for his or her perspective.
- Ask questions about people or issues an adolescent cares about.
- Bring up topics in conversation that your child knows more about than you do.
- Begin conversations in casual, non-confrontive settings that may be more conducive to communication.
- Try to remember how you felt as a young person: your hopes, your feelings, your likes and dislikes, and your experiences. Then step into your child's shoes, and begin your conversation.
- Pick the best time to have your conversations, depending on the importance of what you want to communicate to your child and your child's frame of mind.
Reprinted with the permission of the Institute for Youth Development. © 2005 Institute for Youth Development.
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