David Coleman's simple rules on seeing eye-to-eye with our teens
In the second of a four-part series on communication with our children, David Coleman looks at how eye contact and body language can build closer ties in the family home
When our babies were born, they couldn't speak, nor could they understand the words we used. But we were still communicating with them and they with us, all the time. All of the gazing, holding, rocking, cooing, singing and smiling that we did were powerful forms of communication.
Last week, in our series on communicating with teenagers, I focused on the tone of voice we use. However, the other non-verbal behaviours we engage in while we are speaking and listening are also crucial to both understanding and being understood.
When it comes to our teenagers, our own non-verbal behaviour (eye-contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture and so on), is central to how we can build warm and close relationships with them.
At the most simple level, one of the easiest ways to show someone you are paying attention to them is to look at them. Making eye contact creates instant connection. Ensuring that we have made eye contact with someone is usually the starting point of a conversation.
As parents, we can save ourselves a lot of hassle by making sure our children, and teenagers, have noticed us before we start talking to them. How many times have you called up the stairs, with increasing frustration as you are ignored, only to discover, when you eventually stamp upstairs, your teenager with headphones on, oblivious to you?
Despite the effort involved, it may be more effective to go, find them, make sure they are listening and then tell them what you want or need.
Beyond the role of eye contact as an indicator of attentiveness, it is also a critical factor in regulating the intimacy of a conversation. In our western European culture, there are simple rules about how we use eye contact to regulate intimacy. When we are the listener, we should look at the speaker all the time. The speaker is the one who gets to determine the level of intimacy that is created, where more direct eye contact shows greater closeness or desire for connection. The intensity of eye contact, though, can be difficult for teenagers to regulate. They may feel insecure and awkward, perhaps unsure of where they stand with you. Long loving looks from you, as a parent, might just increase their awkwardness.
Insisting on too much eye contact at the wrong time may actually increase hostility. Think of those times, when you are cross, and you demand of your son or daughter, "Look at me while I am talking to you!"
Making them look at you, while you stare angrily at them, is more likely to increase conflict than to reduce or resolve it. By insisting on having eye contact, to ensure they are attending to you, you might make a bad situation worse if you are both already angry.
The difficulty that any of us can have in regulating eye contact at a mutually comfortable level of intensity is also part of the reason why many teenagers prefer to talk "shoulder-to-shoulder" rather than "face-to-face".
Another reason that side-by-side chatting (often while either or both of you is focused on a task) can be preferred by teenagers, is because it can ease the stress of having to pay attention to the reactions of the other person.
We are often unaware of our non-verbal reactions to others and yet they can greatly influence how well we connect or disconnect from someone. For example, if your teenager is trying to describe something shameful they did, you may show your feeling of disgust or shame on your own face, without even realising it.
If they were looking at you, the teenager's awareness of your disgust may add to their feelings of shame or guilt. If your facial expression suggests that you are angry, or rejecting of them, then that will disrupt your relationship.
Learning to be aware of your own facial expressions is important, as is learning to spot the subtle signs of mood change in your teenager (which may be evident in their expression).
Gestures are another form of communication we use. Think how dismissive it can feel if someone starts shaking their head at you while you are still trying to explain something to them? What messages will your teenager take when you turn your back to them?
Our actions do speak louder than our words. Research has shown that when we are presented with a conflict between what someone is asking us to do, and what they are doing themselves, we will invariably do what they do, not what they say.
So, for example, yelling in frustration at your son or daughter - "don't you dare raise your voice to me!" - will, more likely, lead them to shout louder, rather than quieten down. Because you are saying one thing, but doing the opposite, they will copy what you do.
Through your role-modelling, by shouting at them, you show them that when someone doesn't do what you want, that you should try to overpower them with your voice. Even if your words, and your stated values, contradict this, the key learning for your teenager will come from what you actually do.
As an aside, extend this principle to things like alcohol use, or respect for others, and there are probably plenty of examples where we give mixed messages to.
From a communication perspective, always try to ensure that you say what you mean and then do what you say.
Next week: How we can listen effectively to try to encourage monosyllabic teenagers to actually talk to us about what is going on in their lives