Keeping the Communication Lines Open

Mother and teen daughter after quarrel on sofa at home.

Keeping the Communication Lines Open

Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them.
-Donald Miller

My parents when I was 7: “Go to your room!”
My parents now: “Come out of your room!”
—Paul, age 16

When I speak at parenting conferences, I usually ask parents how many of them are enjoying good communication with their teenagers. About 10 percent raise their hands. So, if you are having trouble communicating with your teen, apparently you are in the vast majority. When I ask parents if they communicated well with their parents when they were teens, again about 10 percent raise their hands. This doesn’t change the communication challenges you face or the possible hurt you experience, but it’s good to know you aren’t alone.

Attitude is Everything

When it comes to good and healthy communication, attitude is everything. I tell parents all the time, “You have to take the lead with your attitude. You can’t expect your teens to go someplace with their attitude that you haven’t gone yourself.” Emotionally unhealthy parents produce emotionally unhealthy kids. When the Bible talks about inheriting the sins of previous generations to the third and fourth generation, it relates to family attitudes as well. If you were raised in an environment of “shame-based parenting” filled with put-downs, pessimism, and disapproval, you will probably have to work harder than others to not repeat the negative pattern or poor attitude with your teenager. But with focus and work, you can be the transitional generation and improve your family’s pattern of communication. Keep in mind that creating a positive atmosphere and environment at home is key to your teen’s development, and that will have a direct correlation to healthy communication.

If “attitude is everything” then so is atmosphere. How is the atmosphere in your home? If it needs some work, no problem. You are in good company with the majority of parents of teens. Far too often the atmosphere in the home is driven by the teen when in fact what is needed is for the parent to take the lead by setting a better atmosphere. This takes discipline and intentionality. If your children see you constantly nagging and criticizing them, don’t expect them to enjoy hanging around with you. Teenagers need more models of healthy behavior than criticism. Maya Angelou said it this way, “If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” One teen told me, “My mom is constantly criticizing and nagging me and then when her phone rings, she is totally nice and sweet to someone she hardly knows.” You can’t mentor and disciple your teen if she lives under your spirit of disapproval all the time.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Milton Berle, the great comedian of another period, said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” Long before that, King Solomon shared these wise words, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.” (Proverbs 17:22 NLT) So much of poor communication with families has little to do with communication technique and much to do with our busy lifestyles and stress. One of the most effective ways to ruthlessly eliminate stress in a family is to have fun together. Fun and playfulness heals broken relationships and opens up closed spirits. When a family laughs and plays together, it is emotionally nourishing.

How is your family’s laughter quotient? As kids become teenagers, families have to become even more intentional about having fun together. Play deprivation in families can easily shut down togetherness and communication, instead bringing hostility and negativity. Play and laughter are a release. Nothing turns off a teenager quicker than adults who have lost their sense of humor. Teen expert, Wayne Rice, says, “If laughter comes easily for your family, getting through the tough times will come a lot easier also.”

Dealing with Anger

A woman was talking to me about her teenager who was giving her an especially challenging time, and she asked, “How do I deal with the anger issue?” I smiled. “Your anger or your daughter’s anger?” She paused a moment, then said, “My daughter’s, but come to think about it, I’m angry at her much of the time too.”

It’s always best not to discipline or say things to your teen in anger. Just bite your tongue. You don’t have to say everything you think. Really. Most of our own personal regrets in life come from what we have said to others in anger. People deal with anger in many ways. Some people are not yellers, but stuffers. Other people rage and scream. Regardless of how we vent our anger, it’s important to deal with it. Remember your important role in setting a good example at home. Your kids will learn most how to deal with their frustrations and anger as they watch how you handle your frustrations and anger. We end up saying hurtful things. Most of the regrets we have with our own families are from words we said in anger. Parents can also say occasionally silly things, like the parent I overheard say to their 9-year-old, “Do you want me to give you a spanking?” What could the child say? “Well as a matter of fact I was just thinking about going outside to play, but now that you mention it, maybe a spanking would be a good idea.”

The Power of an Apology

When you say or do something offensive in your anger, there is great power in immediately admitting it and telling your teen you are sorry. An apology is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength and healthy authority. It’s also great role modeling. Saying you are sorry is one of the best ways to model healthy communication for your teen. Someone once said, “An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair most anything.” How true. Your teen will know you are not the perfect parent they thought you were when they were five years old. So be proactive, and apologize when needed.

In a HomeWord podcast interview with the outstanding author and speaker Gary Chapman, he talked about five successful ways to apologize. His thoughts are great advice for parents who are looking to build a pattern of healthy communication with their teenager.

  1. Expressing Regret. This is the emotional component of an apology, the “I’m sorry.” This is admitting that you’ve hurt someone and that you are hurting too because you’ve caused him or her pain.
  2. Accepting responsibility. This step is often overlooked in today’s families, but it is a necessary one for a successful apology. Regardless of whether the hurt was intentional or unintentional, accepting responsibility means saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault.”
  3. Making restitution. This language takes the apology to another level by asking, “What can I do to make this wrong right?” It demonstrates a willingness to take action to bring healing to the relationship.
  4. Repentance. This step acknowledges your sentiment that you don’t want the offense to happen again, and that you will take all the necessary steps within your power to see that it does not reoccur. This requires both a plan and implementation of the plan to keep the offense from happening again.
  5. Requesting forgiveness. Asking, “Will you forgive me for what I’ve done to hurt you?” reflects the spiritual nature of your offense. The person you’ve hurt may choose not to forgive you. You can’t force forgiveness, but asking for it is the right thing to do (see Matthew 5:23-24). Whether the person choses to forgive is his or her responsibility, not yours.

Not only are these 5 successful ways to apologize to your teen, they also give your teen the role model and tools to communicate more effectively with an apology too. I just can’t overemphasize the generational nature of poor or healthy communication.

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the President of HomeWord and the Executive Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. Jim speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 30 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage and Closer. Jim and his wife, Cathy live Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca and Heidi.

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