Communication…communication…communication!

Communication is an aspect of life about which teenagers sometimes receive a bad press, as is evidenced by the widespread caricature of the moody, sullen teenager. The public persona, with hood up, earpieces in, hair hanging over downward-directed eyes, sends out the message that communication is off the agenda.

At home, the closed bedroom door, perhaps with “do not enter/disturb” notices prominently displayed, sends a similar message. The noise level within the room can render even shouted messages inaudible. By contrast, family meals can sometimes be painfully silent, with monosyllabic responses representing the sole contribution to human dialogue. The apparently superior attractiveness of the computer or smartphone screen over a person can be a further deterrent to any form of conversation within the home.

At school, different dynamics come into play. Some shrink from social interaction, choosing to become practically invisible. Even when addressed with a direct question, the only response might be a frightened, silent stare. Others put on such a performance to project an image for the benefit of their peers that anyone attempting to communicate with them becomes part of the supporting cast.

The above are all one-sided caricatures, all of which I have seen multiple times. They represent a partial picture. In my experience, there are as many teenagers who communicate frequently and naturally, as there are teenagers who avoid communication. However, that does not take away from the fact that many adults find communication with teenagers difficult. So let’s remind ourselves of the nature of communication.

The Nature of Communication

Communication requires two (or more) people. It follows that where communication is difficult between two parties, the reasons could lie with either party or with both. Before jumping to accuse teenagers for being at fault when there are communication difficulties, then, I suggest we pause and first ask ourselves whether the reason might not lie, at least in part, with those of us who are adults. The reasons could be many: fear of engaging with those from a culture we do not understand; lack of self-confidence that makes us worry we might be shown up as foolish or mocked by those who are younger; not being able to find the energy for what we perceive will be an uphill task. Whatever the reason, we need to understand that if part of the reason for the communication difficulty resides with us, then that is the part over which we have direct control and which we need to address if we genuinely want the communication to improve.

Communication is a two-way activity. Good communication requires parties to engage in speaking and in listening – in turn! If our interactions with teenagers stem from the need to “set them straight”; or if we rush in to accuse or criticise when they have only had the chance to utter half a sentence, then it should come as no surprise to us if we leave the interaction feeling that communication was unsuccessful. The old saying that two ears and one mouth are an indication that we should listen twice as much as we speak has some truth in it! Being prepared to listen and to hear, even when we do not like the message, is fundamental to communicating with teenagers. Of course, there is a place for responding and challenging, but sometimes, if we take the time to listen and hear, then the need for us to “have our say” might well go away.

Suggestions for Parents

The recent holiday period will have thrown many families together for unusually long periods of time. For a number of families, communication will likely have become an issue at some point. If our family is one in which there is ordinarily little communication between the adult and teenage members, this ought not to surprise us. The expectation that families who do not ordinarily communicate can be thrown together for an extended period and experience smooth communication throughout is unreasonable.

Create good conditions for communication by making it a regular feature of the life of your family. This will work out differently for each family. For some it will revolve around eating together as a family; for others it may mean becoming involved in a shared activity; for others it might require the carving out of a time that is regarded as sacrosanct by all members of the family. How it happens is not the issue here, but it is important that it does happen. If it has not been the habit of your family to make time for communication, it will be difficult at first, but communication generally becomes easier with practice. A time of crisis comes to most families at some point. It is during those times of crisis that the ability to communicate is crucially important, and regular communication is the best possible preparation for those times.

Model active listening. An active listener sets out to hear what a person is really saying, rather than resting content with thinking they know what is being said or hearing what they want to hear. Conflict is much more likely to find a satisfactory resolution when both parties understand and practise active listening. Parents who listen actively to their teenagers have a higher chance of getting to know what are genuinely their teenager’s concerns. Additionally, by modelling this approach to communication within the family, they increase the likelihood that the teenagers themselves will learn this important life skill that can transform communication.

Take the risk of talking about taboo subjects. Most of us have subjects about which we find it difficult to talk. They can be because of the personal nature of the subject, such as sexual matters or intimate feelings; they can arise from religious beliefs or cultural assumptions linked to our heritage. Learning to overcome our personal reluctance to address such topics from time to time, using straight-forward, clear language, is a valuable approach to model for our teenagers. Frequently, these are the very topics about which our teenagers are seeking information and advice. All too frequently they become the topics on which they turn to their peers for that advice because they are aware of the taboo nature of the subject for us. However valuable a contribution their peers might be able to make to helping them reflect on the issues, they are probably not the issues that we want to leave entirely at the mercy of peer influence.

Suggestions for Teachers

In some respects, teachers are professional communicators. What we are dealing with in this article, however, goes beyond the transfer of academic information and skills. How does our communication in the classroom influence the ability of the teenage students to communicate effectively?

Model effective workplace communication. Learning how to communicate effectively for the workplace is an important element of learning for teenagers. Teachers make a valuable contribution to this aspect of education by ensuring that their classroom communication embodies respect for others, values differences and approaches problems with an open mind. With such approaches modelled by the teacher, it becomes easier to establish these as standards for communication amongst members of the class.

Say what you mean, and conversely, if you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Teenagers are exposed to all manner of communication online and in the media: exaggerated claims from politicians, uses of hyperbole in advertising, celebrity boasts, and so on. The lines are not always clear between persuasion, argument and advocacy, on the one hand, and abuse, threats and coercion, on the other. Language is a powerful communication tool and how teachers use it in the classroom and how they help their students decipher the message being communicated is another valuable element of a teenager’s education about communication.

Challenge the peer games that obstruct communication. Communication is such an important aspect of human life and society that it is crucial for teenagers to learn how to communicate effectively. The refusal to allow the peer power games of teenage social interaction a place in the classroom is another valuable way in which teachers convey the value of communication and the power of its proper use.

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