North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service

Living With Your Teenager

Issue Five -- Improving Communication

A Common Problem To Solve

"My parents don't listen to me!" This is the most common complaint teenagers and even younger children have about their parents. Even teens who generally get along well with their parents wish their parents would listen more, talk with them more, be less critical and judgmental, and be more willing to discuss the teen's point of view.

Parents, on the other hand, have the same complaint: "He won't listen to me!" Parents complain that teens and preteens are withdrawn and silent, or moody, aggressive and loud. They wish their teens would share more and talk with them in a friendly, non-confronting fashion. They wish their teens would listen more and criticize them less.

Communication -What Is It?

Improved communication has been suggested as the solution for nearly every social problem imaginable. Unfortunately, the word has lost much of its meaning through overuse.

Communication comes from the Latin communis which means common. So, communication refers to the process of establishing something "in common" with another. "With another" means communication involves two or more people. Simply saying more words and talking longer is not necessarily communication.

Effective communication means the message sent equals the message received. People communicating must establish a shared understanding of what is being communicated. Although this process sounds simple, it isn't. It's complex because people are complex and because there are many different means of communicating.

Parents and children communicate from the moment of birth in a never-ending process. Much of this communication is non-verbal -- such as tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions and body posture. By the time children are teenagers, parents have established a complex and fairly rigid communication style with them.

Talking To or Talking With?

Unfortunately, the style of much parent/teen communication is negative and ineffective. Parents may want to reassess their role in communicating with teens. They should ask themselves, "Do I talk to my teenager?" or "Do I talk with my teenager?" Parents who talk to teens are often reminding, threatening, blaming, questioning, ordering or judging. This style is used to pressure teens into doing something parents want them to do, and the effect is decreased effective communication.

How would adults feel if someone constantly threatened, criticized or lectured them? How would they feel about these comments: "That dress is too tight!" "The lawn looks terrible. Are you even too lazy to cut the grass right?" "Why do you hang around with that bum?" "Why can't you be more like Sam?" "Eat your salad!" Would they remain friends with a person who made such remarks to them? Can they hear echoes of their own voice talking to their teen?

Parents who talk with teenagers listen. They make a point of listening to what teens are thinking, feeling or wanting to do. They try to understand and accept teens' points of view. They respect their teens as human beings who are more than their children. In addition, they are not afraid to express their own views or share feelings and concerns.

The relationship between parents and teens is often highly emotional. Their relationship is changing, and both parents and teens want to be heard, understood and accepted. If this is to be achieved, parents especially must listen with their hearts as well as their heads.


The most common cause of frustration, confusion and unhappiness between parents and teenagers is failure to listen. Parents should think back to the last time they fought with their teen. What was said? Do any of these phrases seem familiar? "Why don't you let me finish what I'm saying?" "You don't understand; you just don't care!" "I don't care what you think!" Or: "Because I said so, that's why!" "If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times...!" "Oh, Mother...!"

Remarks such as these usually mean parents and teens aren't listening to each other. Sometimes parents think they are listening when they aren't. Sometimes they assume others hear them when they don't. Sometimes parents think, "I really should listen more," but they don't. Until they can recognize there is real value in listening, and that teens want to share their feelings and want parents to share their feelings, parents will continue to listen, or not listen, the way they always have.

Guiding Teens

It's easy for parents to get discouraged during the difficult teenage years. Many times it seems as though nothing they do or say to their teens is right. Parents may feel communication is hopeless and they have failed as parents. It is important, though, not to give in to these feelings.

Parents know their children better than anyone else. They probably have an intuitive sense of what their children can handle and the meaning of their behavior. This behavior is often unpredictable. Parents may find themselves dealing with children one minute and responsible adults the next. Their task is to maintain a balance of freedom with enough control to help their adolescents regulate their inner impulses. An important part of communicating with teenagers is to be open about this task of walking a tightrope between freedom and control.

Give Clear Rules

Adolescents often need help controlling their behavior. They can be involved in setting these rules, but the rules should be appropriate to their age and changeable when a change is agreed upon. A common complaint of teens is that the rules are the same now as when they were much younger. This may be a legitimate complaint and one that can be discussed with a possibility of changing the rules if appropriate.

Parents can show respect for their teenagers' feelings and opinions by listening to them carefully. Parents need, however, to reserve the right to limit some actions. Teens will often test both rules and parents, but parents don't need to be afraid to insist on behavior that reflects their values as long as they are willing to communicate those values. Teens gain strength and self-respect from parents who are clear and consistent in their rules, who will explain their decisions and who are willing to change rules if appropriate.

Don't Overreact

Parents often look ahead to the teenage years with dread. Parents may become so concerned about their children's adolescence that they respond with severe punishment to even minor transgressions. But punishment usually has little positive effect on teens' self-control and may, in fact, result in more major problems as teens rebel against parental overreaction. A better approach is for parents to communicate their concern. An open discussion of parents' fears will help teens understand them better and may increase their willingness to work out and accept rules both can live with.

Accept Behavior

Sometimes adolescents are not lovable. They can be moody, restless, critical of everyone else and self-centered. None of this is easy to tolerate. You may be more tolerant if you understand that these behaviors indicate the inner turmoil that is a common part of adolescence and not a deliberate effort to be obnoxious. Some of these behaviors simply have to be accepted though not necessarily approved. Most teenage behaviors of this type pass with time, and more likable people will certainly emerge.

Give Support

Although they make every effort to deny it, most teens still need parental help and encouragement. Teenagers will make mistakes and behave irresponsibly at times. The most useful response is one that avoids blame. Teens need to know they are still loved, even when they have "goofed up" in small or even large ways. Parents need to encourage teens to understand what has happened and discuss what can be done about it. They need to encourage independence and allow teens to make decisions about their own lives and accept responsibility for those decisions. Parents also need to be there to give support when mistakes are made.

Need Help?

Sometimes, old communication patterns that are negative and inefficient are so engrained it is impossible to change them without help from outside the family. Sources to help parents communicate with their children include:

It's often hard for parents to recognize that their children are growing up and they have new needs and goals. If parents want to improve their communication with their teens but can't seem to, they shouldn't hesitate to ask for outside help. There are many professionals who can help parents learn new and better ways of communicating. Parents and teens will enjoy and appreciate each other more if they learn to talk with each other and listen with the heart.

Adapted for use in North Dakota by DonnaRae Jacobson, family science specialist, NDSU Extension Service, from a publication written by Judith O. Hooper, assistant professor of fam-ily studies, University of Wisconsin-Extension.
This newsletter is provided through a collaborative effort of the NDSU Extension Service and North Dakota Department of Human Services.

July 1995

NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
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North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service