David Coleman: How to effectively communicate with your teenager
Clinical psychologist David Coleman looks at how the tone of our voice can be just as important as the message
We worry about our teenagers. They sometimes seem so closed and uncommunicative as if they live in their own world, consisting of their friends and their phones, with an occasional dash of Xbox or make-up thrown in.
We know that there are lots of pressures on them and we worry that they are unable to access, or talk about, their feelings. We fear that they bottle up all the pressures, until they just explode out all over the place in big, messy outbursts.
It is possible to talk to teenagers. I meet lots of them in the course of my work. What opens most of them up to talking is knowing that they are being heard, respected and understood. When we can achieve that, we offer them a real relationship that might be a sanctuary for them in the isolation or confusion of adolescence.
This series of articles, over the next four weeks, is about communicating with teenagers, understanding what they might be trying to communicate to us, and being more effective in what we communicate to them. It is about creating a good-enough relationship with them that they can talk.
Really effective communication manages to increase a sense of intimacy and connection between people. It relies on us understanding how our paraverbal behaviour (like tone of voice, loudness, rhythm of speech and so on) and our non-verbal behaviour (like eye-contact, gestures, posture and so on) affects what gets said and what gets heard.
It relies on being able to listen, actively, to encourage others to speak, knowing that we are listening and understanding. It relies on us being able to connect to the emotional tone, and content, of what is being said, as well as sharing our own emotional responses fairly and accurately.
We'll start, today, with a focus on paraverbal behaviour. Next week, we'll look at the role our other non-verbal behaviour plays and week three will be about the practical skills of active listening to really encourage teenagers to speak to us. The final instalment in the series will be about building empathy and emotional connection.
When researchers have looked at how we communicate under pressure (like parents rowing with their children), they have discovered that 93pc of the meaning that your teenager will take from you is coming from your non-verbal and paraverbal behaviour. So, just 7pc of the meaning is coming from the words you are using.
I have found this a staggering statistic because, in essence, when we have cross, angry or distressed "conversations" with our children, it matters way less what we say, than how we say it.
One of the skills we need ourselves, and that we must teach our teenagers, is the skill of interpreting how we say things.
This is one of the reasons that text-based communications (such as emails, texts, social media, etc) rely so heavily on emojis and acronyms like "lol" or "jk" to tell the reader about our emotional state, or our meaning. Given that your teenager probably spends huge amounts of time on their phone and primarily communicates with friends via social media, they may have developed good skills at delivering emotional tone via text, but, conversely, may lack the skill to deliver, or interpret it, in person.
Our challenge is to be sure that we give the messages we want to our teenagers, rather than some unintended message. We have to be sure that our words and our tone of voice fits with how we feel. That way we are more likely to give our teens the message that we intend. For example, if you are upset that your 15-year-old daughter has chosen to go out with friends, rather than stay for dinner with the family, your best response is to say "Oh! That's a shame. I like when we all get to eat together. I'm disappointed you are going off rather than staying."
It is abundantly clear to your daughter that you are not happy and you have accurately communicated your disappointment about her choice. If she was of a mind, she may then decide not to disappoint you (and stay) or, alternatively, she may continue with her plan, but will know that there has been a cost to it in terms of your feeling.
If, on the other hand, you were to have responded, somewhat snippily, "Oh! Fine! Go out with your friends, I don't care", your daughter will probably guess that you're cross and that you do care a great deal, but she gets a mixed message between the actual words and the tone of voice.
That confusion might lead to guilt (possibly your intention) or, more likely, to her dismissing you. Either way, your relationship with her has taken a bit of knock, because she may feel she doesn't know where she stands with you or how you really feel.
Similarly, keeping your voice even, and calm, at other times of stress or conflict means that your son or daughter can hear what you have to say better. As soon as you start to show your anger, through a raised voice, you will trigger their fight/flight response. They'll hear the anger and either engage with it by fighting back, or by switching off ("there she goes again, rant, rant, rant… nothing new to hear"). This is crucial when what we have to say is important and relates to their safety and well-being.
Next week we'll look at other aspects of non-verbal communication with teenagers, to further harness them in pursuit of effective, collaborative communication.