For both parents and teenagers alike, adolescence can be a very hard time. Unfortunately, when family life gets rough, communication tends to break down. And when it does, parents need to restore their ability to relate to their teenagers by learning about the rules of communication.
Without question, parents find it hard to deal with teenagers who are unpleasant to talk to or who limit their communication to grunts or short answers that stop abruptly at “yes” or “no.”
One of the most difficult breakdowns in communication I have ever seen was between a twelfth grade student, Rachel, and her parents. When Rachel came home after school and walked through the door, terror entered with her. Her parents explained to me that Rachel often avoided communicating with them altogether, but when she did speak, she was insulting and would respond rudely to innocent questions such as, “How was your day?” or “What would you like for dinner?” This pattern of behavior would enrage Rachel’s parents so much that they found themselves constantly screaming at and insulting their daughter. Unfortunately the situation got so bad that lately Rachel was staying in her room, locking her door and screaming at her parents when they tried to enter.
When I first saw Rachel’s parents, they were very pessimistic about their daughter’s future. For years they had tried to calm her anger by buying her presents and clothing. They even offered her rewards just for talking to them, but nothing seemed to work.
Clearly this serious communication problem needed to be resolved. After finding out more about Rachel’s background and relationships, I began to speak to her parents about some of the key principles of relationships and I suggested that they begin to practice the Ten Commandments of Communication.
The Ten Commandments of Communication
Although they are not etched in stone, the Ten Commandments of Communication form the basis of relationship-centered communication with a teenager.
This is how it works. On one tablet are five “Thou Shalt Nots,” and on the other tablet, five “Thou Shalts.”Both sides are equally important. The Thou Shalt Nots represent the types of words that tend to destroy a relationship, whereas the Thou Shalts can improve the relationship and bring teenagers and parents closer together.
Thou Shalt Not Thou Shalt
Embarrass Find the Good
The Ten Commandments Of Communication
In Rachel’s case, I suggested that her parents work very hard to not use the Thou Shalt Nots. When they talked to Rachel, they needed to avoid all forms of criticism and control. The goal was to bring Rachel closer and not push her away through negative language. Although their daughter may be insulting and often use the ThouShalts Nots, Rachel’s parents should not respond in kind. Rather, they should focus primarily on the Thou Shalts and try to empathize with her.
It’s a fact of life that the Thou Shalt Nots are bound to distance people from one another. No one enjoys being criticized, blamed or belittled for their behavior. Worse, parents who rely on pressure tactics to force their teenagers to change often create a negative environment that breeds more mistrust and anger in their teens. However, when parents follow the Thou Shalts and use words that are caring and compassionate, they can create a warmer and friendlier relationship.
Take a moment to review your relationship with your teenager. Are your words accepting, friendly, compassionate and understanding? Or are they critical, aggressive, insulting or belittling?
By looking at the Ten Commandments, you can evaluate whether you are transgressing the Thou Shalt Nots or fulfilling the Thou Shalts of communication. If the content and tone of the conversations you are having are angry, critical and confrontational, then it’s up to you to move over to the positive commandments and to improve the tone and content of your words. I would suggest that the ratio of positive to negative words should always remain four to one. As we learned earlier, the relationship parents can build is like a wise investment. Each positive word is one more coin in a parent’s emotional savings account with their teenager.
Also, always measure your words before they are spoken. Strive to convey this positive inner message: “I love you and care about you and I want to deepen our relationship,” and evaluate whether what you are about to say will push your child further away or bring him or her closer.
For about two months, I worked with Rachel’s family to reduce their use of criticism and to have them compliment her whenever they had a chance. At first, changing their style of communication seem awkward to them, but slowly they began to see that without criticism, Rachel was more willing to talk.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in marriage counseling and teens at risk. He is the author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” and “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For an appointment call 646-428-4723.