The Communication Gap
By Anita M. Smith
Ask parents of adolescents their biggest parenting challenge, and in all likelihood the answer will have something to do with communication.
Ask adolescents their biggest challenge with their parents, and in all likelihood the answer will have something to do with communication.
Whether the tussle of the day-or hour-relates to homework, picking up bedroom clutter, after-school activities, curfew, or what's for dinner, communication between parent and child-or lack thereof-is central.
"They never listen to me," "They don't care what I think," and "They don't talk to me" are common refrains among parents and young people alike. Each feels unheard and misunderstood by the other. These issues are at the core of the communication gap that seems to plague generation after generation. One has to wonder just how many disagreements have occurred over past decades-even centuries-between parents and young people because of failed or ineffective communication.
Simply because effective communication skills are foundational to a strong parent/child relationship, indeed any relationship, they demand a good deal of time and attention.
Communication consists of both talking and listening; effective communication requires skills in both areas. In addition, body language, non-verbal communication, is involved in both talking and listening: facial expressions, gestures, posture, kinds of breathing, eye contact, and distractions.
Some adolescents who participated in the Institute for Youth Development's
(IYD) focus groups had these comments about talking with parents:
"I just wish they talked. I mean, I'll come down for breakfast and go into the kitchen and get some cereal or something and my Mom will be talking to my Dad. They'll get all quiet the second I come into the room. I ask, 'What are you guys talking about?' and Mom will say, 'I'm just talking to Dad.' I think, 'Well, okay, excuse me!' I just want to know what they're talking about because it seems like they are talking about me, and I just kinda want to know what they think I'm doing wrong or what I'm doing right."
"I wish they would talk to us instead of just telling us what to do."
"[We want parents to] tell us what's going on, not just be in a bad mood."
"Either parents don't talk about it or they shout about it. If they could use a calm tone it would help."
"Don't lecture me when I ask questions and assume I want to know because I'm already doing stuff [they don't want me to do]."
"I wish my parents would talk about things I care about. I'm not interested in the same things they are, but that's all they seem to want to talk to me about."
While most of us are better at talking than listening, there are some points to keep in mind that will help us become better communicators when we talk:
IYD focus group adolescent participants also talked about parents and listening:
"It's not so much what I want them to talk to me about, it's that I want them to listen more."
"It's hard because adults don't listen. When they want you to do something, they don't care if you had other plans that were important too. They just want you to do what they want you to do when they want you to do it."
"It's hard to get Dad's attention. He always talks to somebody else and he tells me to wait and he'll talk to me in a minute but he never does. When he finishes talking to somebody else, he just walks away."
"Sometimes I feel like I don't want to talk to my Mom but I really want to. But when I've tried to talk to her before she makes it into a joke and it can be hard."
"I cannot have a real conversation with my Dad. When I try to talk to him, he pays attention for a sentence or two, then gets distracted-usually by the television. I guess the TV programs are more important than I am."
Listening seems to come harder to most parents than talking. But with practice, any parent will be able to become a better listener if they have a commitment to do so.
A number of poor listening styles are evident in general everyday conversation: ignoring, pretend listening, selective listening, self-centered listening. In each of these cases, the listener is more focused on themselves than on the individual talking.
When it comes to family communication, it's important to realize that a parent' s listening style can stifle or enhance real communication. In addition to the list above, some typical parent listening styles have been described as: the drill sergeant, the prosecuting attorney, the know-it-all, the judge, the critic, the counselor/psychologist, the avoider, the comedian. Patterns of listening and interaction related to each of these are self-evident.
The goal of a parent should be to become an active, empathetic listener. This kind of listener is genuinely focused on the child speaking, listening to both the words and body language, sincerely attempting to understand the feelings behind what is being said.
A parent who wants to become a good listener may find these suggestions helpful
IYD's adolescent focus groups reinforce what other research is showing. Young people-including adolescents and teens-want good relationships with their parents. They long to spend more time together, in conversation, building connections. Effective communication is a necessary key ingredient to building and maintaining those connections that positively impact both parents' and children's lives.
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