Talking with Your Teen
“You don’t listen to me!” She leaned forward in her chair, body taut, fists clenched, as she screamed at her mother.
I briefly wondered at what the other offices in my suite were thinking as they overheard this, but let it continue. This had been a long time coming.
“I do too listen to you,” the mom said, honest confusion showing on her face.
“No you don’t!” the adolescent girl shouted back. “You don’t really hear me! You hear what you think I’m saying. But you don’t really hear me.”
Impeccably dressed in the latest fashion, hair and makeup just so at every session, and usually slumped in her chair with a “do-I-really-have-to-be-here-I-am-bored-out-of-my-skull” expression on her face, today my teen client had a red, blotchy face, tears and mascara mixing together as she half cried hysterically, half screamed in frustration at her mother.
I had been working with her for months for her bad attitude and had experienced my own frustration with her refusal to talk to me, as well as her mother’s frequent emails and phone calls complaining about her between sessions. Although I had offered joint sessions before, the girl had adamantly refused. Finally, I reached a point where I told both of them that counseling would discontinue if they did not begin getting it together, as mother and daughter. I simply was not helping them as individuals.
They agreed, to my surprise, and today was their first joint session. The girl came in, sullen and angry and telling her mother that she was stupid, with her mother wearily replying, “You need to stop talking to me like that.” The first half of the session was a go-around between the two of them that accomplished nothing, but finally something the mom said in response to her daughter quickly brought us to the crux of the problem. The scenario went something like this:
“You don’t really hear me,” the girl repeated over and over again, her anger gradually diffusing. She said it quieter and quieter until she finally slumped in her chair, crying like a small child who wanted only to be comforted.
Her mother was in shock and I was triumphant. Finally, a breakthrough! Now we could begin working on some specific skills, namely communication, that would hopefully result in a happier and more respectful teenager.
In the weeks that followed, we unpacked several key points in the communication dialogue between an adolescent and a parent.
We started with “hearing”, since that was the daughter’s chief complaint: “You don’t really hear me.”
The scenario at hand that particular day was the girl wanting the car. Anna* wanted the car on Friday night so she could go to Denny’s with her friends. I had her repeat her request to her mother.
“I want the car Friday night. I haven’t hung out with the girl in awhile ‘cause I’ve been so busy with Regents exams. We want to go to Denny’s to celebrate exams finishing”.
“No!” her mom replied. “We’ve been over this. You’re not taking the car out if it means getting in past 10:00!”
“You don’t trust me! Gosh! You make me so angry!” Anna shot back.
“You’re not taking the car!” mom shot back.
I stopped them.
“Mom, what is Anna saying?” I asked her.
“She wants the car so she can go out,” was the reply.
“And?…” I prompted.
“She wants time with her friends — which I don’t understand because when is the last time she spent time with her own family?”
Anna threw her hands up. “See!” She said with exaggeration. “She does not listen to me! I hate her. She’s so stupid!”
It was a long process, but eventually I helped mom hear what her daughter was truly saying. She was mentally exhausted from all the studying she had done the past two weeks on her exams and just needed to chill out and have some social time. She also felt that her mom didn’t trust her, and at the age of 17 she was desperate to start gaining some trust from her mother.
I had the mom imagine she was 17 for a minute and role play her daughter’s part. The light began to dawn on her face as she took on the role, tentatively at first, but then really got into it.
As mom took on the daughter’s role, Anna took on the mother’s role. This took a few more minutes to accomplish correctly as Anna could not look past the typical egocentricity of adolescence. But as she began to attempt to “win” the argument with her mom, she too understood her mom’s point of view. She also quickly grasped just how disrespectful she was to her mom by calling her stupid, telling her she hated her, and even wishing her to die.
The situation was resolved that day by mom agreeing to let Anna take the car, understanding a teen’s need for a social life and gradual independence, and by Anna agreeing to respect her 10:00 curfew that evening. As a compromise over not letting Anna stay out with her friends, mom agreed to let them come over for a slumber party after they went to Denny’s.
This was just the first in a half year of sessions that this mother and daughter had to have in order to learn to communicate with each other. As the sessions went on they learned some mutual responsibilities they needed to take in their conversations with each other.
They learned how to truly hear what the other person was saying. They learned to go beyond the spoken words and hear the deeper meaning.
In order to achieve this they usually had to role play. Anna had to pretend to be her mom and her mom had to pretend to be Anna. It was only after they stepped into the other person’s shoes and took on their point of view that they could see the emotions and desires underlying the words.
Anna and her mom learned mutual respect for each other. At first Mom was a bit reticent about hearing that she needed to respect her daughter, feeling that meant she would have to treat Anna as a peer with equal privileges. When she discovered that it simply meant respecting Anna’s thoughts and feelings, even if they were driven by age-related concepts, while at the same time still being able to be the parent, she was able to accomplish this.
Anna, on the other hand, quickly learned respect for her mother by role playing her mother’s part. Just a few times of being called stupid and being told that she was hated was all it took for her to appreciate more fully that her words hurt her mother’s heart. Anna learned that mom had feelings too.
We also worked on each other’s love languages in our counseling sessions. According to The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman, we each speak and receive love through one of five different ways: meaningful touch, time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and gifts.
When our love language isn’t being spoken by those in our lives, our love tank feels empty and we are more prone to reacting defensively and emotionally during difficult conversations. However, if we are secure in the fact that we are loved by the other person, we can usually handle a tension-filled discussion much better.
Anna’s love language was time and her mom’s love language was words of affirmation. Because mom had to work a full time job to support both of them, time was something she did not have energy to give to Anna. However, once learning it was the best thing she could do for Anna, she made more of an effort to spend time with her, even if it was just 30 minutes a day of meaningful conversation.
In addition to learning what it felt like to be disrespected with cruel words through the role playing, Anna also began to comprehend that not only did her mother’s love language mean she needed to be talked to respectfully, she also needed to be thanked and praised for what she did on a regular basis.
Once both women learned each other’s love language, and began speaking them more regularly, they were able to get through conversations without screaming and fighting.
In addition to this, mom took time to really get to know her daughter — her personality bent, her dreams, her fears, her strengths, and her weaknesses. This had gotten lost in the busyness of life, not to mention Anna’s attitude had made it difficult to accomplish. But Anna agreed to share her heart a bit more with her mom and mom agreed to listen more fully.
This communication pathway actually did not begin with verbal words. Instead, when Anna expressed that it was “weird” to just sit and chat with her mom about her feelings, I encouraged them to start a journal with each other. This journal could be left in a location where each could access it and find it, and both could write down their thoughts and feelings for the other person to read.
Mom began writing of the things Anna was doing that made her proud, like excelling on all her Regents exams, and Anna began writing of things like how a girl at school embarrassed her with a comment and what she wanted to do with her life. The journal wasn’t so much a place for mom to confide, as I cautioned her from relying on her daughter emotionally in a way that was inappropriate, but it was a place to read her daughter’s words and respond with understanding and encouragement.
I also had to help mom learn how to validate her daughter’s thoughts and feelings by letting her voice her opinion in discussion instead of shutting her down with, “I’m not discussing this. I’m the parent, you aren’t. That’s the end of this discussion.” Mom learned that she could validate the feelings even if she didn’t agree with the adolescent logic behind those feelings.
Mom also learned how to listen without becoming overly dramatic. Anna had learned early on that her mother was going to “freak out” about certain things, so she just figured it was better to not say anything at all. This led to a huge breakdown in communication between the two of them and talking only took place when things got to a breaking point.
Mom learned how to listen to Anna say things like, “So. . . I’ve been thinking. I don’t think I believe in God and I don’t want to go to church anymore,” or, “My teacher made me mad today so I told him to shut up,” without “going off” by yelling at Anna and telling her why she was wrong.
Instead, mom learned to listen and turn those things into teachable moments, both for herself as she sought out why her daughter was saying what she was saying, and for Anna, as she encouraged her to consider other options concerning the situation. Because mom had listened without over-reacting, Anna was more prone to listen to the advice as the conversation wrapped up.
Anna and her mom finished weekly counseling, moved into monthly sessions and then bi-monthly sessions. The following year I saw them in my office twice when they reached an impasse with two different situations, but in each case I reminded them of what they had already learned and they resolved their argument on their own before leaving their sessions.
The third year I received two phone calls from mom and two from Anna on four separate occasions, asking me for advice. Again, I just reminded them of what they had learned two years previous.
Anna’s last phone call came in the fourth year when she called to tell me that, at the age of 21, she was “doing awesome” and her mom had “become her best friend.”
Anna and her mom had learned how to communicate.
Parenting a teen is hard work.
Being a teen is hard work.
A healthy relationship between parents and teens that involves good communication is difficult during these turbulent years, but doable.
If you want to read more about learning how to communicate with your teenager, I recommend these books:
The Five Love Languages of Teenagers by Gary Chapman
Boundaries with Teenagers by Dr. John Townsend
A Tribe Set Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence by Patricia Hersch
But sometimes, no matter how much reading you do, an impasse is still reached between you and your teen. In this case, seeking out a family counselor or a counselor who specializes in adolescent issues can help move you both beyond this point.
Counseling does not need to be a long, drawn out process that extends for years, but can instead be an informative time that teaches key relationship and communication skills. These key skills can then be implemented between sessions by the parent and teen. The goal is that both will be able to continue on using these skills without needing counseling any longer.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.