The good news is, you WANT communication to improve...
You and your family are doing the best you can to communicate with each other. It's not a lack of want or even a lack of trying.
What may be missing, though, are some practical tools to help you act skillfully and learn to communicate and relate to each other effectively.
The strategies below have been successfully used by many families in the past to improve communication and build trust in the parent-teen relationship.
The Family Journal
Sometimes taking that first step towards effective verbal communication can be too daunting. It’s like learning a new language and when it’s too uncomfortable, you or your teen may shut down or never take action.
A family journal is a good way to take that first step. Choose a notebook and a location to keep it. Begin by explaining the function of the family journal to your teen (and partner if you have one.) Let them know that you want to practice communication and building trust.
Start small: simple notes about your day or messages of love or gratitude. For example, “It was nice seeing you at breakfast today. I hope you enjoyed your pancakes.”
Review expectations that everyone in the family writes in the journal once daily, even if it is just a sentence. Create buy-in for your teen by letting them know it is a way of you working on trust so that you are not watching over them constantly. Teens typically hate the constant monitoring that result from their inappropriate, unsafe or unhealthy behaviors.
The Code Word
Sometimes teens are open to support or trying a new coping skill, but feel embarrassed or resistant to saying the words “I'm sad / need help / want to do something unhealthy/unsafe” (often due to being conditioned to fear your reaction.) Choosing a code word that everyone in the family agrees upon can be helpful.
When your child uses the code word or phrase, you will respond in the agreed upon way. You can coach your child through a DBT Distract, Self-soothe or Improve the Moment skill (if you have previously agreed to this) or simply join your child in an activity such as:
- Talking about something else
- Be with your teen and watch a funny tv show or movie
- Take your teen for a drive
- Go for a walk with your teen
- Go get food with your teen
- Window shop at stores
- Offer your teen art supplies or a coloring book
Remember to keep your own emotions and reactions in check and reinforce to your teen that you are grateful they trusted you. If you appear too distraught or overbearing, your teen will likely not come to you next time.
It is also important not to ask questions or pressure your teen into discussing "What's wrong?" The Code Word strategy is simply about helping your teen manage an urge without acting on it and offering your support by engaging them with a coping activity. If you ask questions or try to identify a trigger, your teen will think twice before coming to you the next time an urge arises.
Remember, don't try and teach your child to swim when they are drowning! Help them cope with the feeling in the moment with the strategies listed here, then go back to the situation when you are both in a calm state of mind to process the thoughts and feelings that arose.
The Rating Scale
Another helpful tool to develop a mutual language with your teen is to create a rating scale:
0 - Things are OK. No thoughts or urges are present
1 - I’m upset. Thoughts are there, but more passing thoughts or feelings. I’m OK for now. I have no plan to act on anything.
2 - I’m overwhelmed. I’m very upset. I can’t focus on anything else. I’m thinking about hurting myself.
3 - I’m about to lose control. I have a plan to hurt myself.
Using a number system allows you to gauge where your teen’s thoughts and feelings are so that you can appropriately respond.
You can even discuss with your teen what different numbers on the scale might look like in terms of behaviors. Some teens may be more irritable as the numbers on the scale increase. Others become more isolative. With others, you may not see any difference in behavior at all. This is typically what concerns parents the most.
Teens often appreciate this simple way of relaying their status to you. You can incentivize them by letting them know that this provides an opportunity for more time alone without monitoring.
For example, if at a 0 your teen is in his room listening to music, but this is also what your teen does at a 3, the only difference between them could be your questioning “What number are you at right now?" and trusting in your teen's response.
Help your teen help you too!
Better communication means that EVERYONE in the family knows how to respond and interact with each other in appropriate and healthy ways.
This means happy and safe teens and happier families overall!