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Are the teen years really some kind of "parental purgatory" that you just have to live through, or is it possible to have a respectful and open relationship with your teen? Communication style may be key.

An awful lot is going on for your teen — their body, hormones, and and brain are all developing at amazing speeds. They're trying to "find" their place in the world and will play around with their solidifying sense of self-identity and value system, while craving increasing independence and also developing sexually. When you think about it, that's really enough to make anyone's head spin!

It isn't easy for you, the parent, either. The parent-teenager relationship has been so widely stereotyped as stressful, unpleasant, and filled with conflict [1] that a lot of us about to become parents of teens see the teenage years as a kind of "parental purgatory" that you just have to live through before you hit the child's twenties, when you can start to get along with them again. In fact, research shows that parents find conflict with their teens more upsetting (and for longer) than the adolescents themselves do. [2]

Are the teen years truly doomed from the start, and is a roughly five-year period of yelling over sex, alcohol, school, and family values inevitable? Maybe not. 

Generations of apparently qualified professionals, including psychotherapists, have come to see "adolescent turmoil" — drama between parents and teens very much included — as simply normal. Research, however shows it doesn't have to be this way. Such turmoil is much less common than many of us think [3], and a very interesting Australian study reveals that the majority parent-teen pairs mutually reported that they had a positive relationship. [4]

Keeping this in mind may even allow some families (mine included, I hope!) to avoid self-fulfilling, and in this case rather dramatic, prophecies. This is important stuff, because besides the fact that raising teenagers you get along with is obviously great for your own mental health, teenagers are less likely to turn to drugs, to perform poorly in school, and to encounter emotional and social problems if they have a great relationship with their parents. [5]

How do you do it? What kind of communication strategies should you employ in a bid to have a good relationship with your teenager while also offering them the moral, emotional, and practical guidance that teenagers do indeed very much need? 

Pay Attention Not Just To What You Say But Also How And When You Say It

Has your daughter just come home three hours past her curfew? Are you worried your son is having sex? Do you suspect your teen is the target of bullying — or do you want to initiate a discussion on just about any other important topic with your child? Keep in mind that non-verbal communication (ranging from eye contact, the tone and volume of your voice, and facial expressions, to the physical distance between you and your child, whether or not there is any physical touch, and beyond) plays an enormous role in how a conversation is perceived. Some research even goes as far as to say that non-verbal communication represents 70 to 90 percent of all communication! [6]

When you're stressed, it becomes even harder to hear what someone is trying to tell you, and non-verbal communication takes on an even greater role. What's more, you have less control over your non-verbal communication than you may think!

If you've got something of crucial importance to discuss with your teen, consider waiting until your own mindset is right — and your non-verbal communication conveys love, care, and perhaps concern, rather than anger or panic. 

Disagreements Are Inevitable — Drama Might Not Be

Research suggests that teenagers believe that:

  • Parents are on the initiating end of most of the conflicts between you. 
  • Such conflicts are best avoided, but if they're already happening, they want them resolved. Strategies teens may employ in the process include aggression, emotion, and cooling off, but also accepting responsibility and submitting. [7]

When I look back to my own teenage years, I have to admit that I was "frightened" of my mother — I didn't want to disappoint her, and this led me to try to represent myself in a way I thought she'd approve of, rather than telling her what I really thought. That, in turn, caused sub-surface resentment as I felt I wasn't given the opportunity to be "myself". Not an unusual situation, I think. 

Since you and your teenager are two different people, disagreement can indeed be declared outright inevitable. Drama may not be quite as destined, however, and even if it's happening, you have options. They include [8]:

  • Asking open, rather than leading, questions, with an open mind. Rather than judging, accusing, or filling in blanks in your own imagination, try to understand things from your teen's perspective. 
  • Brainstorm with your teen, rather than handing them preconceived solutions on a platter — the latter will cause push-back. Your teen is engaging in the crucial process of separation-individuation (developing their own self-identity and acting accordingly), and they crave independence as well as guidance. 
  • Being authentic and honest, and sharing some of your own experiences when relevant. 
  • Pointing your teen to sources of information besides you, such as books, websites, or other trusted adults. 
  • Not taking emotionally-charged conversations personally and not responding in kind. 
  • Agreeing to disagree when it's not that important. If you try to micromanage your child's life, they may not listen when it comes to the really important stuff (think clothes vs sex and drugs, maybe). 

Do Tackle The Important Stuff

One interesting study I came across found that especially important topics, such as sex, dating, and substance abuse were rarely talked about. Also interesting is the additional finding that when parents and teens do talk about these things, it's rarely in an angry setting. [9

As the parent of kids in the very brink of the teenage years, I'm hardly a veteran yet — and not qualified to offer "been there, done that" advice from the parental angle. What I can say is this: we all want to pass on our core values or at least make sure our kids are aware of them. Initiating these tough topics is hard, but it also pays off. If you are frequently able to discuss them in a relaxed atmosphere, you're probably less likely to end up having spur-of-the-moment arguments about them. 

Share what you really believe, and ask your teen to do the same. When we get into the habit of discussing and debating, verbal punches lose some of their appeal. 

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