Clinical therapist Nick Lenderking-Brill works with adolescent boys at Open Sky. His curiosity about people and relationships drives his desire to help people heal internally and through human connection. Drawing on his extensive experience on both our clinical and family services teams, Nick offers guidance on the important topic of parent-child communication and how to sharpen communication and listening skills.
We all have different personalities, communication styles, and ways of relating to each other. During the adolescent years, parent-child communication can be particularly difficult. Adolescence is naturally a time when kids are trying to differentiate from their parents and cultivate their own identities, perspectives, and tastes. Sometimes they’re even actively trying to not listen to their parents and care much more about what their peers think. While communicating with a teenager who doesn’t want to listen to you can be frustrating, remembering that this is a natural stage of development can help parents feel more compassion for their kids when they’re acting out.
Kids just want to be understood, which isn’t always possible. In those moments, what they need is simply to be heard, validated, and listened to. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to agree with everything your kid says. It doesn’t mean you need to accept all of their actions. At the heart of it, kids just need to know that you’re actually listening to them and taking in what they’re saying. This is called reflective listening. Parents often resist reflective listening because they believe if they reflect what their child is saying, it means they implicitly agree with them, which isn’t a message they want to send. However, there is a skillful way to reflect your child, validate them, let them know you’re listening, and still set boundaries. For example, if a child is pushing back against their curfew, here is how a parent might respond using reflective listening: “I get how important it is for you to be hanging out with these kids, and I realize we have an earlier curfew than some of the others. I understand that’s important, and you still need to be home on time.”
What kids need from their parents is a deep sense of unconditional love and to know that no matter what they do, their parents are going to be there for them. This doesn’t mean that a parent accepts or agrees with all their kid’s choices, but kids need to know that their parents are going to love them for who they are and not for what they do.
Lecturing and Giving Advice
The most common communication mistake I see is lecturing and advice giving. It often comes from a place of love and positive intention but misses the main point of the issue. For example, if a child is a struggling in school, this type of communication sounds like saying, “You just need to put your head down and do your work because if you don’t do well in school, you won’t get into college.” This actually misses the point of why school is difficult for the child. Instead of lecturing, get curious about what their actual experience is like. Instead of telling them they need to do better, ask, “Why are you struggling? What is your day- to-day experience like at school? How can I support you? Let’s figure this out together.”
Remember, you can always ask your kid if they are open to receiving some advice. If the answer is yes, it’s totally appropriate to give advice at that point.
Another common pitfall is comparison. Comparison is saying things like, “When I was a kid, I played football and ran cross-country. Why can’t you be like me?” Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, “I ditched class and got bad grades. Don’t be like me.” It’s natural as a parent to want to share your wisdom and perspective and experience. It comes from a good place, but hearing this kind of message doesn’t often resonate because your kids aren’t you, nor do they want to be.
Judging and Shaming
Judging or shaming kids is another common mistake I see. For example, a comment like, “You used to be such a sweet kid, but ever since you got that boyfriend, you’ve just turned into a more negative person” falls under the category of judging and shaming. While you may have good intentions, a comment like this doesn’t take responsibility for your own fear, concern, or mistrust around your kid’s choices. It puts all the onus on them, and that message is likely going to be met with some level of resistance. The best way to counteract that subtle message of disapproval is to own your feelings. You could say, “I’m uncomfortable with this choice, and I disagree with it. I still love you for who you are because this choice doesn’t define you.”
Take your time
First and foremost, it’s so important to be gentle with yourself, be patient with yourself, and be patient with your family. So often we want to try to get to the bottom of an issue right away, but when emotions are high, it can be a lot harder to implement effective communication styles. So step back, take a few breaths, and regulate yourself before coming at the issue with some curiosity. Do some reflective listening. It doesn’t need to be robotic, but think of yourself as a mirror. You’re summarizing what your kid is saying. Then you can respond by using communication strategies like “I feel” statements. For example, “I’m really uncomfortable with this choice” or “I’m nervous about this choice because I care about you and want the best for you.” Bring it to the moment. Own your experience.
Come from a place of compassion and love when communicating with your child so that you can have a grounded conversation. That can also demonstrate confidence in your child. Getting worked up sets the tone for a really difficult way to connect. If a parent is modeling a grounded tone, there is more potential for the kid to be able to access that too.
Anything that you can do to regulate yourself when you’re feeling triggered is a basic form of self-care. This could be doing something like going out and chopping wood, raking leaves, going on a walk, taking some deep breaths, putting on some music, or driving around the block. Whatever you can do to get yourself to that state of serenity and calm before you approach these conversations is going to be beneficial.
It’s important to also do these self-care practices even when you’re not triggered so that you can maintain and prevent rather than react. That’s also a way of modeling to your kids the same behaviors you would like them to be able to access when they’re feeling worked up.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
It is totally okay to make mistakes. Parents oftentimes feel this pressure to be perfect and get everything just right, whether it’s perfectly formatting an “I feel” statement or doing the perfect reflective listening. That kind of pressure can lead to feeling paralyzed and therefore not even trying. It’s so much more beneficial to try and make mistakes and maybe not totally hit the mark than to not try at all. Give yourself some grace. The point is not perfection. You could even acknowledge this in conversation by saying something like, “I’m not perfect, and I’m making mistakes. I’m struggling with this communication stuff. It feels clunky to me, but I’m trying.”
I think kids love to hear that their parents aren’t perfect. In fact, I think they need to hear that their parents aren’t perfect. Parents and children are walking this path together. It’s important for them to practice and nurture that feeling of being in it together.
Practice, practice, practice
If you keep putting in the reps, these skills will become muscle memory. If you’re enrolled at Open Sky, I encourage you to take advantage of all the family services we offer here, such as Family Quest, Parent Coaching, or Wellness Weekend. Use the resources that are available to you, cut your teeth on this stuff in real time, and keep practicing parent-child communication within your family.