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Talking with teens: WFU psychologist offers tips for good communication

By Cheryl Walker
336.758.5237
June 24, 2004

“How was school today?”

“Fine.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

Christy Buchanan

When parents try to start a conversation with their teen-agers, they often get one-word answers, says Christy Buchanan, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. Although talking with adolescents can sometimes be tough, Buchanan offers suggestions for ways to improve communication.

“Direct questions are sometimes not as effective,” says Buchanan, who has written numerous articles on parent/adolescent relationships. “Kids are not always ready to talk in response to a question. A big part of any healthy communication is listening.

Take time to be quiet with your kids.”

She advocates spending time just hanging out with adolescents.

“This can be more challenging for working parents because time is more limited, so you have to be creative and find ways to be with your kids,” she says.

Use non-verbal communication by placing an arm around a child or putting a hand on their shoulder to communicate caring, Buchanan says. Noticing non-verbal behaviors that indicated a child is upset or happy can also provide opportunities for a parent to connect.

If a parent does ask a question, how it is posed can also be important. For example, instead of asking how school was, she suggests trying a specific open-ended question such as “What did you and your friends talk about at lunch?”

Emotional content beyond just the facts is often the most important, so asking about why a teen feels a certain way, can foster better communication.

“It is important to accept a child's feelings and take time to listen to their feelings if we want them to open up,” says Buchanan, who teaches a course on effective parent-child communication. “Don't jump right in and evaluate or suggest that they should not feel a certain way.”

Rather than responding by telling them how to fix it, involve them in problem solving, Buchanan adds. Asking them to come up with possible solutions works better than advice giving. She suggests avoiding lecturing as much as possible because adolescents usually don't respond well when parents seem to know everything.

Praise your children, but be sure it is sincere. Notice what they do well. Buchanan likes what she calls the “second-hand compliment,” letting children overhear a parent say something positive about them to someone else.

Handling anger appropriately can go a long way toward promoting better communication, Buchanan says. It is important for parents not to become hostile, even when that means waiting to discuss an important issue until they can calm down. She also recommends avoiding direct criticism and sarcasm when talking with adolescents.

Parents have to find a balance, showing interest without being intrusive. If a parent is concerned and is not getting the information they need directly from their teen-agers, they can also talk with teachers, youth group directors and other adults in the child's life to gain better insight.

Conflict between parents and children during the adolescent years is connected with negative behavior, so good communication is worth the effort, Buchanan says. She stresses the importance of overcoming awkwardness about addressing difficult subjects, so adolescents feel okay about bringing up those topics.

“Usually, if adolescents know parents views and values, they are less likely to be involved in deviant behavior,” Buchanan says.

The good news is the vast majority of teen-agers will characterize their relationship with their parents in positive ways. “Despite our negative stereotypes, they value what parents think about things."


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