On the Phone: Teaching Your Teen Better Communication Skills & Self-Control
You might have to communicate differently and get serious about your limits.
Parenting teens is a challenge, especially when it comes to communicating with them. Sometimes, it seems like they’re not the best at listening, especially when you ask them to get off their devices.
How do you get them to stop looking at their phone for a second and not have to ask them twice? There are two problems in this scenario: communication and self-control.
Adolescence is a crucial time in every teenager’s life. And as a parent, communication with them is everything.
There are so many ways to improve and even small tweaks on your communication skills can positively impact your relationship with your growing adolescent.
A client I’ve been working with for a while shared that ending the communication battles with her teens also allowed her communication with her husband to improve.
If your teens aren’t listening to you, your negative communication pattern probably goes something like this.
You ask them to do something they never want to do — homework, chores, or getting off their phones. Even if you think you’re asking nicely, you’re probably feeling some degree of frustration or dread in anticipation of their response.
You’ve asked this same thing repeatedly and never once have they responded with a “Sure thing”. So, of course, you’re annoyed!
After multiple asks, you yell or flip out, which makes you feel terrible. As one client put it, “Yelling is the only way they listen, but I hate it every time.”
For some kids who enjoy getting the rise out of their parents, this presents an opportunity for a power struggle. Now you’re fighting (again) and the same ask goes unanswered.
The homework still has to be done. The chores still aren’t done. And tomorrow, it’ll still take 10 asks to “Put your phone down and come to dinner.”
The moral of the story: you and your teen don’t really hear each other anymore. That’s why it feels like they aren’t listening. They’ve learned to tune you out.
If this sounds familiar, there’s bad news and good news: There’s nothing you can do to make your teen listen to you. But if you’re willing to try something new, you won’t have to use force.
There are 2 reasons why your teen refuses to listen to you:
1. They Feel Like You’re Controlling Them.
If your kids aren’t listening, chances are that they are feeling controlled by you in some way. The more you advise, suggest, or ask (but really tell), the more they will resist. This is why we have to be savvy and change how we do things.
Now if your response is, “My kid should listen because I’m the parent and he should respect me”, I understand and agree…to an extent, if we lived a world where that was still the cultural norm.
But we don’t and fear-based parenting isn’t the best practice. Also, I guarantee you that proceeding with that mindset will just prolong the negative pattern you are already in.
Sometimes, this even includes things your teen actually enjoys doing.
For example, a client had this pattern with her middle-school son. The more she leaned on him to practice for an upcoming rehearsal, the more he resisted. Even though he wanted the part, the minute she asserted her control and reminded him to do it, the power struggle escalated.
She was frustrated. If he won’t do things he supposedly likes, how could she get him to do things he struggles with?
Since she’s a coaching client, I asked her to assess herself for control on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being mellow and 10 being a control freak. She gave herself a 7 or 8.
Now I asked the same of her son. After a long silence, she said he was about the same.
This means that two people which a similar desire to be in control over a task that ultimately can only be done by one of them.
2. You Make Threats You Don’t Follow Through.
With this same client, when I asked her to recreate what happens when things escalate, she said she makes threats that she doesn’t always follow through on. This time, she threatened not to take him to the rehearsal.
You probably already know this but it’s good to be reminded: Unless you follow through on threats, kids quickly get the message that there are no consequences.
For this mom, she concluded that she’d take her son to the rehearsal. Either he’d either bomb it and feel disappointed or ace it and get a part.
So how can she make him listen? In short, she can’t, so that’s what she agreed to start a conversation with: “I realize that I can’t make you practice.”
That’s huge. But how could she make it on his terms, so he was in control but would still practice? She offered to be his audience and give him her undivided attention. We found two times in the days before the rehearsal that worked for her and she offered them to him. From there, he had a choice of whether or not to take her up on it. Not surprisingly, he did.
From a kid’s perspective, there is very little on their terms. Adults control their worlds. But they have a secret weapon: ignoring you until you lose it and then fighting about how you are being a control freak.
Before you can take action steps to improve your communication with teens, ask yourself these questions for self-reflection:
- Am I making assumptions? If so, how does that come out in my “ask”?
- What are the things my teen has control over that I am still trying to control?
- On a scale from 1-10, how controlling am I?
- Am I willing to change how I communicate even if I ultimately believe that they should just behave differently?
In other words, does your communication have annoyance, frustration, and/or control? And if so, are you willing to do it differently?
Now that you know why your teen won’t listen to you, how can you start improving communication so they actually do listen to you?
Get yourself in a state of cold cognition, which means your emotions are quiet and you’re not in the heat of the moment. (Of all the things I teach parents, this is the one that has the most immediate and transformative impact on their communication.)
In this state, call a family meeting and put a time limit on it. Start a conversation in a state of cold cognition.
Then, say something that acknowledges what is going on and the limits to your influence:
- “I’ve noticed that we fight to get you to come to the dinner table.”
- “I’ve noticed that I have to ask you multiple times to get off your device.”
- “I realize that I can’t make you come and eat dinner.”
- “I realize that I can’t make you get off your devices.”
From there, offer something that communicates where you are at and also your desire for input:
- “I love you too much to fight all the time. I’m interested in your thoughts about how we can get along better and still have dinner together.”
- “I am working hard right now, and your help around the house would really help me out.”
- “I realize we’re in a bad habit and I’d like to change it.”
And then: listen. Without an agenda.
Chances are that if you are frustrated with your teen, they also have their own frustrations. Give them the space they need to be heard and see what happens. At the end of this brief meeting, you can come to a solution or you can revisit the topic.
The point of it is to communicate with your teen when you aren’t already annoyed with her and to express your desire for a new outcome.
Cold cognition is kind of like a secret weapon for getting teens to buy in, especially if they are used to a highly emotional version of you.
Now, what if your teen refuses to get off their device unless you scream at them?
Screens really are the issue of our time and they’re relatively new. So if you have bad screen habits, you’re certainly not alone. That doesn’t mean you can’t take action and, in some cases, it may mean taking drastic action.
Back to the family meeting: if you are in a bad habit about screens, own up it. If you find it hard to set limits for yourself, own up to that too. Share the behaviors you’d like to see: phones off during meal times and at bedtime without yelling or fighting.
You can invite your teen to share their perspective about to change the ritual of extricating them from their phone, but if you’ve been in a rut for a while, they may just grunt in reply or call you a control freak.
And then, offer a choice: they can either try to manage this on their own for the next week or you’re going to install a parental control app on all of your phones so you don’t have to rely on their self-control.
The minute you bring up an app, you’ll have their attention. Prepare for a reaction that’ll include a lot of begging, telling you how much you suck, or that you’re unfair. You’ve been warned.
I got this idea from a client who has worked hard with her son to set screen boundaries, but he is addicted to gaming. Though he says he understands the risks associated with excessive gaming, he still has no self-control.
Here’s the thing about having a third-party control: If you are like many, many parents and didn’t set limits for screens and now it’s turned your household into a war zone, use the app. Don’t buy into the fear that if you set the limits for your kids now, you’ll always have to. Trust that as they mature and your relationship strengthens, the ultimate goal of self-control will come. And if that means externalizing control right now to an app, go for it.
All this is a detailed process for what many parents want desperately from their kids: They want to be heard and listened to without fighting, especially when it comes to their screens.
Unfortunately, this is part of a larger communication fail where the teen feels like the only way to have control in the situation is to ignore their parents and watch them lose it.
Furthermore, the screen thing is an issue for all of us. I recently installed limits on my own phone because I need external regulation. Not because there’s anything wrong with me, but because I’m trying to change my habits and screens are everywhere and very addictive.
If you want to change the dynamic, start by changing how you communicate with your teens. Ask yourself those self-reflecting questions mentioned above.
After you’ve done a little reflecting, talk when you aren’t already mad and listen to your kid’s perspective with this in mind: “I love you too much to keep fighting about this.” This doesn’t mean to abandon expectations and standards; it means acknowledging the limits of your control and then collaborating from there.
Lastly, if the screen thing has become an immovable issue, then I highly recommend using a third-party app. I wouldn’t consider it a fail. I’d consider it a bridge that you’re willing to construct until you and your teen can reach higher ground on your own.
This guest article originally appeared on YourTango.com: How To Get Your Teen To Put Down Their Phone & Listen To You.
Guest Author, P. (2019). On the Phone: Teaching Your Teen Better Communication Skills & Self-Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/on-the-phone-teaching-your-teen-better-communication-skills-self-control/