Communicating with your Teenagers for Optimal Cooperation

Parents experience a lot of struggle raising teenagers. Adolescent children are searching for their identity as they go through many hormonal changes. Parents constantly complain of the behavioral changes of their children a lot in therapy sessions, as they are not able to handle the demands of this stage. Teenagers become defiant, aggressive, demanding, and uncooperative because by this stage, they have been exposed to so many rules and limits set by their parents and caregivers, and they would much rather have their freedom. They begin to resist the limits set by their parents and want to identify with their peer role models. They begin to complain about things that they do not have but their friends get to possess, for example, material things like cars, and other luxuries. They become less sensitive to their parent’s needs, and capacity to afford; sometimes they also become demanding. When parents go through these tough moments, it is very crucial to communicate effectively. Often times, teenagers would aggravate and trigger the anger in parents and they become argumentative with them. The result is ongoing power struggle and defiance on the part of the child. It is important to learn to communicate at the ego state of an adult rather than a parent or a child when confronted with these situations. In Psychology, there is a theory of Transaction Analysis, (TA) which explains these ego states very well.

According to TA, there are three ego states that we all have in ourselves and we operate on these ego states all the time. We switch from one ego state to another when we communicate to others. The first ego state is the Parent, the second is Adult, and the third is Child.

The Parent ego state has two aspects: nurturing and critical. When you are nurturing, you take care of the needs of your children, listen to them, be positive and say things like,” let me help you”, “sweetheart”, “honey”, and “keep trying” etc. However, when you are critical, you begin to use absolute terms like,” never”,” always”, “should”, “dummy”, “lazy”,” shut up”, and many more degrading terms. Sometimes parents ridicule their children and become sarcastic too. When you become critical of your child, he is likely to defy you and his self esteem gets shattered. He feels like he is being attacked and has a strong need to defend himself. When teenagers argue, it is not a good idea to communicate at this ego state because it will back fire on you and result in more defiance. It is better to be empathic to them, reflect on their feelings and then set limits. Many parents tend to set limits first without the prefix of reflection of feelings. It is important to set limits with them, but remember to reflect on the feeling first by saying, “I can understand that you feel sad when you are asked to return by the curfew time, but the rule is, you need to be back by 9:00 PM”. When you communicate like this, the child is more likely to understand that you are empathic towards him. We will elaborate more on this when we talk about the Adult ego state.
The Child ego state has two aspects too: Natural and Adapted. When we communicate at this level, we experience feelings like sadness, happiness, fun, fear, anger, and many more feelings. For example, when you take the child to the play ground, they have fun and they are natural. At the adapted level, there are two levels: Compliant and Rebellious. When we are compliant, we remain silent, or avoid situations. The other level is rebellious when we say, “I won’t”,” I Can’t”, throw temper tantrums, and say things like, “I don’t care”.The child Ego state is the level when the person becomes impulsive. As adults when we switch to this level, we give a message without using the rational mind. This state of mind can also back fire on parents. Children do not hear you use logic and reasoning and they resist whatever you are communicating with them. You are more likely to elicit cooperation from them when you operate on the Adult ego state.

At Adult ego state, you ask questions to get information, use “I” statements, and make good decisions. When you communicate in “I “statement, you take charge and become responsible and your message is more effective because you are taking an active role. For example, you say, “I feel angry when you defy my rules. I would appreciate it if you show respect to the curfew rule of 9:00 PM”. You say things like, “I understand that it hurts your feelings when I make rules for you, but the rule is that, you come home by 9:00 PM. I care about your safety and I mean well when I make these rules for you.” When the child hears that you care and you also can have empathy for his feelings, he is more likely to cooperate and comply with your limit setting interventions. These messages do not imply attack, blame, or degrade the person because you explore the situation as an adult and refrain from giving the blame and attack messages. They are honest statements which reflect your feelings and genuine intent of a parent.

When talking to the teenagers, it is important to identify the ego state that you are operating on. If you are being an authoritarian parent, who is demanding the curfew rule, the child tends to defy it. Because when you are ordering and giving commands in a loud tone of voice and your body language, speech, and non verbal cues are giving the message of anger, they feel threatened and intimidated by you. You are then perceived as a “mean person” and the child is likely to feel unloved, hurt, and becomes defensive. His ego will be hurt and he might retaliate by screaming at you and raising his voice, or swearing. This can start a power struggle and it is a no win situation for both of you. On the other hand, when you respect the dignity of the child by using,” I” statements and reflect on his feelings by demonstrating a body language of calmness, and refraining from using attack terminology, you will elicit more cooperation , and keep the self esteem of the child intact. When we use harsh words, we also damage the self esteem of the child and he begins to perceive himself as bad. Consequently, he attaches a negative label to his self, which is not a healthy sign and becomes detrimental in the formation of his personality.

Our ego states can change moment to moment. A pattern that continues over a long period of time, determines a personality. Once you become aware of your ego states, you can change the pattern and become more effective. Awareness helps in making the shift from one ego state to another. When you are angry, you can see the signs and realize what you are doing. However, when you change from the parent ego state and assume the adult ego state, the conversation will flow better with greater effectiveness.

To become a responsible teenager, the teenager must learn to navigate life’s treacherous roadways from the driver’s seat and not the passenger seat. They are looking for independence but they also need guidance from the adults. Some parents give more freedom to them and some less. Some teenagers want more freedom than they should have. The tug of war that may result can create considerable turmoil for parents and teens. There are some Do’s that you can do to get your child cooperate with you:

  1. Have casual chats with your teenagers. It is important to be friends with them and bring up issues when they are doing chores or riding with you. They are more likely to open up when they are side by side with a parent rather than face to face. It is important to build up a rapport with your children by becoming their friends versus always being in the role of a parent and demanding perfection.
  2. Keep the conversation brief and to the point. When you indulge in lengthy discussions, they are more likely to tune you out after the third sentence. So try to be brief, make your point and stop. The child will get time to process, what you said later on, when he has time to think it over and reflect on what you said.
  3. Listen attentively with a body language that gives a message that you are present. Try not to interrupt the child and get the full scoop of the problem. Try to paraphrase the message so that there is no misunderstanding and clarify, if you have doubt understanding the entire message. Refrain from rigidly adhering to the rules so that the teenager is not tempted to look for loopholes.
  4. Stay calm. When you begin to argue with your child offensively, they shut down and this blocks the communication. It is likely that you will disagree with your teenager, but if you remain at the adult ego state when disagreeing, without getting impulsive, and forming judgment, you will be able to hear out your child’s view point and act accordingly. Again, try to reflect on the feelings by making statements like, “I can see how much it frustrates you,…..”
  5. Refrain from dictating and commanding. Children need guidance from you and it is not a good idea to be a commander, in chief and dictate. When you talk like a commander, they do not learn anything and it back fires. Rather, give them options and choices and let them come up with solutions, by brain storming ideas, and giving them a chance to consider options, and then choosing the best one. When you give them solutions, their abstract thinking does not get developed and they become dependent on you for all their problems. By giving them guidance in a subtle way, acting like their friends, you are more likely to become effective in eliciting their cooperation and also teaching them problem solving skills. Children like to have input in decisions and it makes them feel valuable.
  6. Try to use disciplines like loss of priveledge, and time out etc. to address oppositional and defiant behaviors versus being argumentative and aggressive. Children learn to model after their adults and they also become aggressive when they are disciplined authoritatively and aggressively. They learn to manage their stress by being aggressive if they are exposed to aggression and violence at home.
  7.  Be specific when you use these disciplinary techniques so that the child understands what behaviors result in loss of priveledges — TV time, video games, access to internet etc. For example, if you are punishing the child for breaking the curfew rule, let him know that the loss of priveledge resulted due to breaking the curfew rule, so that they form an association in their mind . Also, reward absence of bad behaviors liberally, as this is a proactive and preventive measure to address behavior problems. Most of the time parents only focus on the negative behaviors and tend to take the good behaviors, for granted, and fail to acknowledge them. However, this results in frustration and anger and sometimes good behaviors are faded. In order to strengthen good behaviors, it is important to reinforce with rewards, ample verbal praise, and making the child feel good about his behavior. Try to accentuate the positive as much as you can. Some of the rewards could be special time with the parents, an outing, a special treat, movie or a sport event. This facilitates a good rapport with the child and creates an atmosphere of harmony in the family, versus discord and disharmony when there is power struggle in the house. Power struggles disrupt the smooth functioning of the family and are very dysfunctional in nature.

In summary, using the TA model, you can learn to improve your communication skills and avoid power struggles that teenagers typically engage in, when they feel devalued and belittled.
Hypnosis can help with a lot of common problems that children face, for example anxiety, anger, ADHD, fears and phobias, depression, low self esteem, OCD, PTSD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Please visit our Blossom Hypnotherapy page to learn how hypnosis can help reduce symptoms of Anxiety disorders.


Note: Although in this post I refer to the teenager as a male, the skills are applicable to both genders.

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