Proverbs 1:8 begins, “Listen my son…” -- but what if he won’t? Is that just his problem? Do parents bear any responsibility to try to help their teen listen, or is our only responsibility to give wise counsel? If we know our teen isn’t listening to our wisdom, advice, reproof, and correction, what do we do? Galatians 6:1 certainly could apply here. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
As parents, we need to do all we can to remove stumbling blocks and barriers to good communication with our children, seeking to help restore them to obedience in listening to us as parents. Although the final responsibility is on our teens to listen, we certainly must make sure we are not failing in some areas ourselves and creating barriers to their listening.
Here are 8 barriers to good parent-teen communication and some ideas for busting them.
1. Nagging – When your wisdom and advice are constant throughout the day, with little neutral or pleasant chatter, your words begin to lose their impact. Ecclesiastes 6:11 indicates this when it states, “The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?” Constant nagging short-circuits your ability to get your point across and tends to overwhelm and push your teen to anger or discouragement. Perhaps you could make a list of your child’s faults. Prioritize them in order of most grievous/consequential to least. Get input from other wise parents. Focus only on the ones you feel you must. Pick a top 4-5 and then plan to keep quiet about the others until the most important victories have been won.
2. Criticizing – Certainly in parenting there is always need for instruction, discipline, and training, but as parents we must be careful to not be overly critical, especially in areas that are not related to sinful behavior. If you’re struggling with major discipline areas with your teen, then be even more careful about other criticisms. Don’t worry if his shirt is wrinkled, his hair is messy, or he wore the same shorts yesterday. Avoid criticizing him in front of others. In fact, purpose to praise your teen at least 5 times each day, either in passing comments or in a specific conversation.
3. Wisdom Spray – Sometimes parents can turn on the firehose of instruction when we need to focus on just a trickle of wisdom from the garden hose. We get started on one area of weakness or failure in our child’s life, and then we begin to pile on. “And another thing…and another thing…and what really ticks me off is when you….plus you always seem to…” Don’t unload all of your frustrations about your son’s behavior all at once. Deal with the matter at hand, and leave the other issues for another day.
4. Trying to win the war all at once. Closely related to the point above, we must realize that the war against sin in our teen’s life is won one battle at a time. Certainly sin must be conquered once and for all through the Gospel’s work in his life, but the war with the flesh is ongoing and is best handled one battle at a time. Think of how God has worked in your life. The victories have come one by one, and the focus has been on a few areas of sin at a time as the Holy Spirit brought about conviction and strength to overcome. Pick some of the battles you feel your teen is most tender about. Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in assessing which battle front to deal with next. Remember to praise and celebrate the victories along the way.
5. Negative, non-neutral atmosphere. I remember being told once in a seminar on leadership that I should sit behind my desk when talking with subordinates to subtly show my authority. I don’t necessarily agree with this ideology. (If you need a big desk to prove you’re a leader, you’ve probably done something wrong.) There may be places in your home that aren’t the best place to talk to your teen - places where he feels a negative atmosphere, places that remind him of past failures, places that subtly indicate that you are not interested in his opinion or his side of the story. Change the atmosphere. Go to a coffee shop, a fast food restaurant, or take a drive in the country. All of these are neutral locations and may open up communication in new frontiers for you and your teen.
6. One-way communication – Remember that, by definition, communication is a two-way street. Yes, your teen needs to listen to you, but as he grows older and matures toward adulthood, you need to listen to him, too. He may say things you don’t want to hear but that you need to hear. Listening to those comments will help reveal barriers. Perhaps he has seen inconsistencies in your life. Perhaps you need to ask for forgiveness. There may be an unreasonable teacher involved that you need to hear about, or a pressure he is dealing with outside the home that you need to know about. Ask questions and follow up questions. Listen, even though he may not be mature enough to talk without an angry outburst, tears, or bad language. Make sure he knows he is being heard. Don’t just listen to his words, either. Watch for those misty eyes or subtle gestures that indicate various emotions. More on gestures in the point below.
7. Gestures – Pointing fingers, snarling red faces, pounding fists, crossed arms, and more are all ways we communicate beyond our words. Your teen listens to you by watching these, too. You may say the right things and yet defeat the words with your gestures. Make sure your gestures are open, calm, reassuring, and kind as you talk.
8. Timing – The moment when you are feeling agitated, irritated, and angry at your teen may not be the best time to try to talk to him. Every bone in your body may be itching to go address the problem right then and there, and yet the timing isn’t right. Perhaps you’re too angry to address him, and it will be hard to speak the truth in love. If that’s not it, perhaps there is a ballgame on that night he wants to see, or he is in the middle of his favorite TV show. Take some time to stop and pray. Ask the Lord to work in his heart. Ask the Lord to give you wisdom regarding the right timing. Take some time to plan your words and how you will address the problem. What questions will you ask? How will you give him the benefit of the doubt? How can you offer praise with your rebuke? In the Bible we see that the prophet didn’t address King David right away regarding his grave sin; yet we know from Psalm 32 and 51 that God was at work in David’s heart before Nathan came to him. Learn to wait on the Lord and rely on his leading as to timing. You may find that God has already softened his heart before your conversation.
9. Super Authority Parent – As your teen gets older, you must learn to communicate with him more as you would other adults. This doesn’t mean to give in, give up parental authority, or be run over by your child. It does mean that you don’t treat him like an elementary student. Instead of a short, firm “No you can’t go,” try something like “I’m sorry, son, I don’t think it will work right now; is there another option?” Instead of “get your homework done at 3:30,” try “what time do you plan to do your homework tonight?” You may need to help him think through the homework plan, but you are also giving him some options. You are making the change from a sergeant to a coach. See this article for more insight. Click here.
What other barriers have you seen as a parent that you’d like to share here? We all can learn from each other. Continue to work at good communication with your teen. You can’t force him to listen and internalize everything you say, but you can work hard at tearing down barriers to your wisdom and advice whenever you can.
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We're a group of folks who love helping teens and families. We also love learning and sharing what God has taught us in our over 50 cumulative years of working with families and teens.