Lost in Translation: How to go back to basics and avoid arguments when communicating with your teen.
Look- communication is hard. Like really challenging. Unbelievably difficult. Yet it’s a task we face all day every day. For parents and their teens a simple conversation can feel like entering a war zone. And it’s absolutely exhausting for all parties involved.
A lesson in communication.
I realized communicating was a complex process many years ago during family therapy. The mom had felt disrespected during an interaction the night before and the son genuinely felt like he had done nothing wrong. They were both pissed and the session was tense. After a few minutes they were able to share with me what had happened, but it wasn’t until each shared details about their communication and thought process that it all began to make sense.
That evening mom was finishing up making dinner after a long day at work and said to her son “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes” as he was playing on his Gameboy. The son thought “Sweet- I have ten minutes left to check out snap stories and then I’ll be on time for dinner.” As soon as dinner was ready he put his game down and joined the family. He thought he had done a great job following house rules about no electronics at the dinner table. Problem is- what mom meant was “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes so you should put your Gameboy down now and set the table”, so she felt ignored and disrespected by his actions. Neither one of them entered that conversation with any ill will or poor intention, but both left it feeling misunderstood and upset.
Why is communication so difficult?
Well- first of all, we all process information differently. You see, sometimes I’m driving in my car and I think of a blog idea and when it's in my head it sounds… well it sounds amazing. But then I get to a safe destination and start typing away and I just can’t get my point across. The process of taking my thoughts and putting them down on paper isn’t as simple as just writing it down. It’s a cognitive process and for my learning style, things get lost in translation. It’s absolutely frustrating and I tend to have tons of writers block with only brief periods where the thoughts in my head actually show up on paper as I had intended (I’m having one of those as I type).
But here’s the thing- even if I write my most well articulated blog, communication doesn’t stop there. Now it’s you, the reader’s turn. You’ll read the words written here and by the time you finish reading and your brain has processed the information, you may or may not have read and interpreted this blog post as I intended. All of a sudden- what was meant as a helpful example makes you confused, or frustrated. Or maybe what I think is coming across as clear isn’t at all. Maybe it makes no sense at all and you are completely valid in hating my writing, even though my intention was to be helpful.
This is SO HARD.
Good news is- the thing about writing/reading a blog post is that me as the writer and you as the reader have the opportunity to re-read and have time and space to process and interpret and re-interpret so that hopefully the message becomes clear (or you send me a note to let me know it hasn’t and we can resolve this together).
However, when communication is verbal, sometimes we don’t offer or ask for second chances. And when communication has emotional content, or one or both parties in the conversation are experiencing difficult emotions, the brain’s ability to go through the process of understanding and interpreting information gets compromised. We’ll talk more about that in my blog next week and explore all about emotions impact the brain. Stay tuned!
Can communication get any easier?
Yes- of course it can. But it takes practice, patience, and openness to think things through. Here are a few things to keep in mind when communicating with your teen to increase the likelihood that your message gets across and you don’t end up in a shouting match:
Remember that communication is difficult. If you keep in mind the process explained above, maybe it won’t be so infuriating if your teen doesn’t “get it” in the moment or shouts at you that you “just don't’ understand” because fact of that matter is, you might not. Whether the message delivered wasn’t clear or got lost in translation during the listening cognitive process, it wasn’t maliciously intended to be misunderstood.
Offer opportunities to clarify. After sending a message it’s okay to ask “Did that make sense to you?” or “Do you have any questions?” or “I just want to make sure I made sense… can you tell me what you got out of this conversation?”. On the flip side, you’ll want to clarify that you got the correct message from what your child was communicating, so you might want to say something like “What I heard was…” or “I think I understand. Did you mean…”. Invite opportunities to reframe statements without being angry at each other.
Try to communicate clearly and don’t assume your teen can read between the lines. Modeling this will help them learn that you aren’t mind readers either!