Communicating dissatisfaction to our tweens and teenagers can be a frustrating experience for any parent. Getting them to listen without tuning out (glazing) or becoming angry (raging) requires patience and a willingness to discuss topics of interest to the tweens/teens as well.
Most of us give little thought to how we voice complaints. Consequently, our complaints to our tweens and teens are often similar to those we voice to our spouses, colleagues or to customer service representatives in that they rarely get us the result we want.
Tweens and teens typically react to parental complaints by withdrawing or getting that ‘glazed’ look in their eyes. When parents realize their son or daughter is tuning out, they either repeat their complaint or state it more forcefully. This usually makes their tween/teen withdraw even farther or in some cases, become angry (“Leave me alone!” or, “You don’t understand anything!”).
This vicious cycle, where the parent complains, the teen withdraws, makes the parent complain more forcefully, is called demand/withdraw communication. As most parents know, it is extremely unproductive, not to mention unpleasant and bad for the parent-child relationship.
So how can parents of tweens and teens get off the demand/withdraw merry-go-round? Recent research into the demand/withdraw dynamic between parents and teens found something interesting – it operates in both directions.
Parents are often just as reluctant to discuss topics of importance to their tweens and teens (e.g. wanting more independence, or the latest exploits of Justin Bieber) as tweens and teens are to discuss topics of importance to parents (e.g. taking more responsibility).
Therefore, to keep channels of communication open, parents must be more open to discussing topics of interest to their tweens and teens, even if such topics seem frivolous, boring or unnecessary. Having such discussions can also provide parents with numerous opportunities to shift the topic to one that is important to them. For example, if your tween or teen wants to discuss attending a party or extending their curfew, doing so will allow you to steer the discussion to the topic of peer pressure, teen drinking or personal responsibility.
If at any point in such a dialogue your tween or teen begins to withdraw, it is a sign that you should switch to listening mode or bring the discussion to a close. It is better to have an abbreviated but successful talk than to push too hard and fall back into the demand/withdraw dynamic.
The following guidelines will offer you the best chance of voicing complaints or concerns to your tweens or teens without triggering the demand/withdraw dynamic:
1. Don’t compete for their attention. If your Tween or teen is talking with you while texting or playing a computer game, ask them to pause the game so you can give each other your full attention, “Sure, I’d love to hear about the party you want to go to this weekend, but please put your phone down so we can talk about it seriously.”
2. Take advantage of car drives. Tweens and teens are often at their most communicative when in the car because there are few distractions (turn the radio down and suggest a no-earphone rule except for very long drives). Parents can also hear great points for future discussions when carpooling, as tweens and teens often talk openly as if the parent driving isn’t even present.
3. Don’t raise your voice. Anger is one of the elements that triggers demand/withdraw. You might have every right to be frustrated but you are much more likely to get your tween and teen to hear and absorb your message if you deliver it calmly.
4. Never do more than 50 per cent of the talking. When parents do more of the talking than the tween or teen, it can begin to resemble a ‘lecture’ and invite the demand/withdraw dynamic. Tweens and teens are masters of sniffing out when their parents have an agenda and doing too much of the talking can make tweens and teens clam up. If your child speaks in short sentences, respond briefly, or ask short questions, to keep the balance as equal as possible.
5. It’s more important to find out what they think than tell them what you think. One way to do this is to ask open-ended questions. For example, when discussing their wish to attend a party, you can casually ask, “I’m curious, what would you do if something happened at the party that made you uncomfortable?”
Keeping the channels of communication open with tweens and teens is hugely important. Staying off the demand/withdraw merry-go-round will allow you to have more open discussions and give you the platform to voice complaints and concerns in a more productive way.
Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a psychologist, family therapist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Co; 2011). For more information, visit www.guywinch.com.
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