One of my favorite authors, Virginia Satir, describes the family system as a mobile. You know the one—the mobile babies peers at curiously and joyfully while babbling away in their cribs. If one part of the mobile moves, the entire mobile moves. The same can be said for a family; each member’s behavior impacts the others, in ways both positive and negative.
When I think of communication in families, I am reminded that we all have an inner and outer voice. The inner voice may not always present itself to us in the most helpful manner, which is often due to the way we have processed situations and events we have experienced in the past. It may feel like our inner voice is more like a harsh self-critic or is filled with sorrow and hopelessness. As parents, it is important to notice that our children have an inner voice that sometimes comes out as an outer voice filled with anger, defensiveness and even shutdown.
A helpful way to view our teens’ responses is to see those responses as data, and see ourselves as data collectors. Our teens are communicating with what they have at their disposal at that moment, which often can be confusing for everyone. However, meeting them with curiosity and non-judgment is key to tapping into and soothing their inner voice, which may be reaching out to be heard and understood or simply asking to be left alone for the time being. As parents we tend to want to step in quickly and redirect, fix or correct a situation, but it takes time and patience to wait and allow for the inner voice to come out. Taking a step back is hard but necessary or we may find ourselves in a pattern of unhelpful communication with our teens where both parties feel dissatisfied.
One of the most basic and fundamental skills of counseling is reflective listening—reflecting what someone is saying to you. As parents we can use this strategy to build trust with our teens, and to allow them to feel like they have been heard and understood. It is truly amazing what creative problem-solvers our teens can be when they feel heard and understood. Reflective listening for a parent could simply mean being quiet and attentive, and nodding when appropriate. Asking questions out of curiosity (mindful of our tone), and without judgment is inviting your teen to share what they have on their mind in a safe way.
This new strategy of interaction involves re-learning a way to be with one another in honest conversation. Don’t get me wrong; this is tough, especially if it is a new way of engaging with one another. Like anything new, it is going to take time and practice. Don’t give up at the first hurdle; remember, you are creating new ways of engaging in conversation and connection with your teen. This is good work and when you begin to see the changes in how you interact with one another it will be worth it!
Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer programs to youth ages 5 to 21, parents and families, in a welcoming, supportive environment. 412-561-5405. This column is partially underwritten by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.