Like a lot of simple parental questions, this one got to the heart of a very complex issue: “How important is it for our teenager to be able to talk to us?”
For parents, the answer is: 'very important.’
More out in the world, the teenager is their prime informant about what is happening in her or his increasingly complicated life. Thus they want to regularly be given adequate and accurate information about what is going on. Without this knowledge, ignorance can put them out of touch when significant unhappiness occurs, harm is happening, or help is needed.
Why People Ask, “What Are You?”
Obviously, to stay accessible and safe to talk to, parents must be willing to listen whenever the teenager wants too talk, not too busy, and to refrain from criticism, which most commonly shuts this communication down.
For the teenager, the answer can be, ‘even more important.’ By talking they put into spoken words what she or he is experiencing, feeling, thinking, wanting and not wanting, and then verbally conveying this message to parents.
I believe that through talking to parents, a teenager practices speaking up skills that will socially enable the young person in the more challenging years ahead. To be a “good spoken communicator” is a huge social advantage making one’s way in the world when she or he must independently transact all manner of interpersonal business to cope and to advance oneself.
Know the value of face-to-face communication. Very young children learn best through two-way communication. Engaging in back-and-forth "talk time" is critical for language development. Conversations can be face-to-face or, if necessary, by video chat with a traveling parent or far-away grandparent. Research has shown that it's that "back-and-forth conversation" that improves language skills—much more so than "passive" listening or one-way interaction with a screen.
What can be a major disadvantage is when that young person has learned a more shutting up habit of communication. Contrasted to comfort speaking up, when inclined to shutting up, a young person can become harder for others to know, and less likely to be taken into account. At worst, awkwardness, shyness, social invisibility, and even isolation can follow.
BENEFITS OF SPEAKING UP
So, consider six possible benefits of learning to speak up contrasted with six possible costs of becoming a shutting up person during the teenage years.
- A benefit of speaking up is being able to DESCRIBE what is happening in one’s inner and outer world of experience by being able to put it in a verbally communicative form. While a speaking up person can capture personal experience in words, a shutting up person may have more difficulty doing so. An extreme contrast might be between a speaking up person who can use words to capture what they feel and a shutting up person who is at a loss of such self-knowledge and capacity, and cannot. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
- A benefit of speaking up is being able to EXPRESS what is happening through talking to others, and in this process coming to terms with it. While a speaking up person can use words to convey personal concerns, thereby get relief and a listen, a shutting up person may be more inclined to keep this information to themselves. An extreme contrast might be between a speaking up person who can verbally confide when needed, perhaps getting empathy and support, and a shutting up person who remains silent and alone. “No one understands me.”
- A benefit of speaking up is being able to EXPLAIN oneself to others -- what one values, believes, perceives, or wants. While a speaking up person may use spoken communication to define themselves and persuade others, a shutting up person may choose to keep this information to themselves, thus being more of a mystery to others and be less likely to influence them. An extreme contrast might be between a speaking up person who regularly lets others know personal opinions and desires, and a shutting up person who elects to remain more unknown and so goes un-responded to. “I don’t have anything to say.”
- A benefit of speaking up is being able to QUESTION others to get information about what is happening and why. While a speaking up person may use spoken communication to gather data they need in order to better understand, a shutting up person, particularly with an authority figure, may lack the assertive will to ask for what they need to know, and thus continue to do without. An extreme contrast might be between a speaking up person who regularly solicits information they need, and a shutting up person who waits to find out or maybe is never told and so stays uninformed. “I don’t like asking.”
- A benefit of speaking up is being able to CONFRONT others about their unsafe or offending behavior. While a speaking up person may use spoken communication to take a stand for their wellbeing or object to personal mistreatment or social wrong-doing, a shutting up person may accept whatever unhappily or unjustly happens without objection. An extreme contrast might be between a speaking up person who lets no ill-use go, and a shutting up person who silently accepts and adapts to whatever mistreatment comes their way. “I shouldn’t complain.”
- A benefit of speaking up is being able to RESOLVE inevitable human differences by discussing, arguing, negotiating, and bargaining to solve whatever discord arises in a relationship. While a speaking up person may use spoken communication to address and work out normal incompatibilities and conflicts, a shutting up person may avoid doing so because it feels too uncomfortable. An extreme contrast might be between a speaking up person who treats times of interpersonal friction as opportunities for working out solutions that strengthen the relationship, a shutting up person may simply opt to live with what they dislike instead. “I don’t like to disagree.”
The Art of the Apology
When considering ‘talking to parents’ as ‘speaking up to parents,’ this family education can have formative value in multiple ways. Speaking up
- to describe,
- to express,
- to explain,
- to question,
- to confront,
- and to resolve
are all essential verbal skills on which the young person must increasingly rely. And in most cases they take practice with parents to learn. To support this invaluable education, parents can ask: “If we ever do anything or say anything that makes talking to us difficult, please let us know because we prize all the ways you speak up to us as you do.”
Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”
While some parents may be grateful to have a quiet, pleasing, and compliant teenager to live with, they need to be sure that they do not graduate from their care a young person with inadequate speaking up skills that may be harder and more costly to learn in relationships ahead.
As for those firmly authoritative parents who believe that a good child is best seen and not heard, that arguing with a parent is disrespectful, and that undisputed obedience should be obligatory; I believe sometimes such rigid training can ill prepare a young person to make their way in the world.
What Is Hypersensitivity?
Next week’s entry: Social Cruelty in Middle School