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For Parents

The Communication Gap

By Anita M. Smith
Vice President, The Institute for Youth Development

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.

Remember that 70 to 80 percent of all communication is nonverbal. If you truly have an empathetic heart, you will always be reading the nonverbal cues.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families
By Stephen R. Covey

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:

"Although young children usually exchange thoughts and feelings quite easily, adolescents are not often so communicative. It takes a real effort to keep the channels of communication open with someone who is apparently determined to shut you out and to be as monosyllabic as possible. But it's essential to keep talking-and keep listening-if you are to survive your children's adolescence intact. If you can manage it, and are still on speaking terms with your adolescents by the time they reach their late teens, you'll find they may actually want to talk to you, and it's once again rewarding to have conversations with them."

Adolescence: The Survival Guide for Parents and Teenagers By Elizabeth Fenwick and Dr. Tony Smith

"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:

  • Tone of voice and emphasis on words can dramatically affect the message the listener receives, regardless of the actual words spoken.
  • Word choice can encourage and inspire or devastate and degrade.
  • A calm, soft voice or harsh, loud voice affects both the speaker and listener having the power to diffuse or incite a difference of opinion.
  • Asking questions requiring "yes" or "no" answers discourages conversation and, therefore, communication.
  • When discussing volatile topics or issues on which you and your child may disagree, use "I-words" rather than "you-words." Focus on your own thoughts and feelings rather than addressing what your child's actions or what you believe your child's thoughts and attitudes to be.
  • Ask your teen's opinion about specific things to encourage dialogue and show respect for his or her perspective.
  • Ask questions about people or issues an adolescent cares about.
  • Bring up topics in conversation that your child knows more about than you do.
  • Begin conversations in casual, non-confrontive settings that may be more conducive to communication.
  • Try to remember how you felt as a young person: your hopes, your feelings, your likes and dislikes, and your experiences. Then step into your child's shoes, and begin your conversation.
  • Pick the best time to have your conversations, depending on the importance of what you want to communicate to your child and your child's frame of mind.


". . .understand how much being listened to is valued by the people we love. When someone genuinely listens to us, it feels as though we are heard and loved. It nourishes our spirits and makes us feel understood. On the other hand, when we don't feel listened to, our hearts sink. We feel as though something is missing; we feel incomplete and dissatisfied. . . .so few of us become good listeners [because] we don't realize how bad we really are! . . .Our poor listening skills have become an invisible habit that we don't even realize we have. And because we have so much company, our listening skills probably seem more than adequate-so we don't give it much thought. Determining how effective you are as a listener takes a great deal of honesty and humility. You have to be willing to quiet down and listen to yourself as you jump in and interrupt someone. Or you have to be a little more patient and observe yourself as you walk away, or begin thinking of something else, before the person you are speaking to has finished."

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff with Your Family By Richard Carlson, Ph.D.

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

  • Pay full attention when your child talks to you. Stop doing other tasks; turn the television off; put down the book or newspaper.
  • Listen to the words being said and watch the facial expressions, gestures and other nonverbal clues to understand the feeling behind the words.
  • Pay attention to the tone of voice. Yelling can simply be an attempt to be understood or get your attention.
  • Keep an open mind. Recognize that you and your child won't agree on everything.
  • Employ reflective listening techniques, repeating what you think your child feels and is saying using slightly different words, to be sure you really are getting the message accurately.
  • Ask appropriate questions.
  • Give appropriate verbal encouragement as your child talks.
  • End the conversation when your child is ready to end it, not necessarily when you are ready. Adults sometimes don't listen long enough or try to prolong discussions to be sure the child has understood their point.
  • Take your child's concerns seriously.
  • Show respect for your child through both language and demeanor.
  • Be ready to respond.

Please Listen
When I ask you to listen to me
and you start giving me advice,
you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me
and you begin to tell me why
I shouldn't feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings. When I ask you to listen to me
and you feel you have to do something
to solve my problem,
you have failed me,
strange as that may seem.
Listen! All I ask is that you listen.
Don't talk or do-just hear me.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens By Sean Covey

Parents who actively work at being better, more effective communicators with their children will see results. Things won't necessarily change overnight. But as you hone your listening and talking skills, you will begin to recognize your communication patterns and become more aware of areas that need some work. Research shows that teens that feel their parents listen to them are emotionally close to their parents and have fewer problems as they grow to be adults.

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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The Institute for Youth Development
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