While dining out, I mentioned I recently had a fight with a colleague at a workshop. My companion was appalled, calling up images of me and my colleague punching each other at a training facility. I laughed and clarified that it was only a verbal fight.
She remained alarmed, picturing therapists hurling profanity and insults, which was still incorrect. I further explained the nature of our interactions and when she heard that it was a heated, but respectful, discussion of a sensitive issue, she challenged my use of the word, “fight,” suggesting that “discussion” would have been more appropriate. I didn’t feel that “discussion” conveyed how hurt, embarrassed, scared, and confused I was at the time.
She suggested that “argument” might have worked, although I felt more like I had been defending myself against an attack than arguing any sort of point, so I suggested “heated discussion” instead, although, I don’t think that fully communicated that the person with whom I had this exchange was someone I feel a great fondness towards, not just a random professional.
The whole thing took about a half an hour and the two of us have known each other for over 40 years.
Single words can have vastly different meanings to different people and the more single words with different meanings that get combined into a conversation, the more opportunity there is for miscommunication. That alone is enough to explain the almost continual misunderstandings that take place between teens and their parents. Teens complicate the interactions further by downplaying or amplifying, inventing new words and phrases, and using old words in new ways. It may even seem like they’re intentionally trying to make communication difficult. Parents must not assume that simply because they heard the child that they understand what the child meant.
When interacting with a teenager, for best results, do far more listening than talking. Even if what they’re saying isn’t very clear to you, as they keep talking, they can hear what they’re saying and that helps them sort out their thoughts. You may find that the longer they talk, the more clear they become. They may even talk themselves out of whatever they started the conversation supporting.
When it seems like they’ve finished or are taking a break, reflect back to them what you think they said. Say, “It seems to me you’re saying…” “I think I heard you say that you wish you could….” “I get the impression you might be….” If you are sincere and respectful, they will correct you where you didn’t get it right. Don’t worry about being “wrong,” it’s highly possible that they, themselves, don’t even know what they’re talking about just yet. Your reflections help them clarify.
Do your very best not to insert judgment. Say, “It seems you don’t want to go to college,” not “It sounds like you’re ready to throw your life away.” As soon as you start criticizing, the conversation will be over. Just work on understanding what they’re saying, not trying to change it. Keep working on it until they agree that you really heard them. What happens next is almost always worth it. They will either drop a ridiculous idea for having heard how truly ridiculous it is – out of their own mouth, or they will at least keep you in the loop while they continue to consider it.