Communicating with teenagers: Use a language you both understand

It’s all about emotional fluency. We must ensure emotions grow in our homes

It is not enough that we love and care for our children. They have to feel loved and cared for. Photograph: Getty Images

It is not enough that we love and care for our children. They have to feel loved and cared for. Photograph: Getty Images

 

In my work I frequently hear from parents at their wits’ end saying that their teenagers do not communicate with them or anyone else and the same teenagers exasperated that they are communicating 24/7. Communication patterns have changed with the ubiquitous nature of smartphones resulting in a change to our communication patterns.

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More time spent navel gazing down towards the phones in our hands (that’s us adults as much as the teenagers by the way) means less time making and sustaining eye contact and actually speaking to others. This means less opportunity for inter-subjective, in-person, physical interaction to practise reading and interpreting the non-verbal cues that are so important in healthy communication and in developing emotional fluency.

If we want to encourage emotional fluency in our teenagers, we must nurture a landscape in our homes for emotions to grow and develop. We do this by creating a containing environment within our homes and within the parent-teenager relationship that ensures every family member feels heard, valued, respected and understood through a felt sense of patience, acceptance, empathy, tolerance and shared joy.

Parent-child relationship

Sounds idyllic doesn’t it and who wouldn’t want this in their homes and relationships, but emotional fluency doesn’t just happen, it is evolved and developed within the parent-child relationship from infancy right up to and through adulthood. It is not enough that we love and care for our children. They have to feel loved and cared for. This is why we do communication with our children and young people rather than simply speaking it.

Ask yourself how you do acts of love/care/affection for your teenager. Perhaps having a hot chocolate in the car when you collect them from school or having their favourite jeans out of the wash almost as soon as they went into the laundry basket because you know that they will be looking for them over the weekend. Ensuring you make eye contact and smile at them daily, saying I love you and offering a hug each day. Now think how might your teenager be “telling” you that they love and appreciate you even if saying I love you is not frequent.

Might there be cups of tea made without being asked for, a dishwasher load that went on without a battle, your favourite TV show recorded when you were running late and would have missed it. These are statements of love that are spoken in actions not words.

When we speak about, practise and even play with feelings in our homes with our children and young people we raise young people who are more empathic and are better able to self regulate their own emotional arousal.

Feelings

Throughout adolescence we are seeking to support our teenagers in developing emotional fluency so that they might grow better attuned to their own emotional needs so that they can develop a more in-depth understanding of why they feel how they do in particular situations or in relation to particular people etc. This understanding will enable them to read emotional cues in others better too. They can struggle to convey their emotional state with words due to the complex nature of feelings so they tend to over-rely on behaviour as a means of communicating confused and conflicted complex emotions.

Always remember that your teenager has been studying you closely since birth. They know every muscle movement of your face and body, every tonal inflection or dip in your voice, every sigh (frustration or exhaustion), they are mindful of every mindless gesture you have (a twist of a strand of hair, a twitching foot, an unconscious hum, a facial contortion). They know your rhythms, sounds, movements and body cues. They are experts in how you relate to them and in anticipating what you will do or say next. Use this to your advantage.

15-Minutes to play with this:

Conversation Analysis is an activity I often use with teenagers which I believe helps to build emotional fluency. You will tell your teenager the same (short) story three times. This should be a story you have a strong feeling about.

Give your teenager a pen and paper and tell them:

1st telling – Observe my face: ask that they carefully observe your face throughout the first telling of the story. They should note things like, “wide eyes, averted gaze, furrowed brow, and drooping mouth”.

2nd telling – Observe my body: ask that this time they only pay attention to your body language. They should note things such as “hunched shoulders, folded arms, bouncing leg etc”.

3rd telling – Observe my speech: ask that this final time that they attend only to your speech but that they include what you say and how you say it. They will note what type of words you use, ie positive, negative, strong, gentle, kind, aggressive’ but also what is the emotional tone of your words as reflected in the prosody of voice, ie pitch, pace, tone, rhythm/speed.

Now ask that they reflect back to you how they think you are feeling about the story you just told. They might say, “I believe that you are angry that this happened” but they should also be able to draw on what they observed of your facial expression, body language and speech patterns in making their conclusion.

Throughout Health Month, Joanna Fortune will be suggesting playful ways to connect with your children this year. Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting Series of books, solamh.com

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