How to Communicate Effectively With Teens

The science behind parent-teen miscommunication

At the end of a conversation with your teen, you might be hard pressed to identify the exact moment when it went from a calm, cool conversation to doors slamming. Depending on the day, talking with your teenager might feel like walking through a minefield blindfolded.

There aren’t a ton of great models out there for healthy communication and we all need practice. However, before we give you communication tips, let’s talk about what is going on in your teenager’s brain. These conflicts may be as confusing to her on the inside as they are to you on the outside. Brain science helps explain why.

Person talking into tin can to symbolize communication

Why are you always yelling at me?

I can almost hear my teenage self now, exasperated and offended, turning towards my dad to utter a very well rehearsed line: “Dad, why are you always yelling at me?” Whether my dad was starting a conversation about chores, reminding me of homework, or simply asking what time I was going to be home that night, the conversation would likely return to same line. It is worth repeating:

“Why are you always yelling at me?”

I am not saying that my dad never raised his voice. But now that I am an adult, it is clear to me that Dr. Dave Walsh is a very measured man and an exceptionally good communicator. I seek to emulate his tone and tenor with my own child. It’s likely that he didn’t gain these skills after I graduated college but that they were fairly intact (though no doubt tested to their limits) when I was a teenager.

Am I yelling?

I once left a couple of pop cans in my dad’s car after he let me borrow it. He pleasantly (or at least I assume) asked if I could drop them in the recycling bin the next day. That is NOT how I heard it. It wasn’t more than five seconds before I escalated and launched into my line. “You are yelling at me again!”

My dad responded carefully, “Erin, I am just trying to have a conversation with you.”

I retorted, “Well, that’s some way to have a conversation! Of COURSE I will clean up the pop cans, you don’t need to yell at me about it.”

I remember him doing a “volume check” with my mom. “Monica?” He asked. “Am I yelling? Is my voice elevated? I really want to know!”

This only made me more furious at the time but I can see now why he wanted to check in with an outside observer on his vocal volume. It was as if we were in two completely different conversations – my dad in a fairly pleasant though firm conversation and I fending off a merciless, one-sided attack.

This was as confusing to me on the inside as it was to him on the outside.

Interpreting emotions: The amygdala vs. the prefrontal cortex

So what is going on here? Miscommunication is one of those teenage mysteries that can at least in part be explained by changes in the adolescent brain. Brain scientists have learned that young people interpret emotional expressions differently than adults do.

In an experiment conducted by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at the McLean Hospital, subjects were shown pictures of people in different emotional states. Brain scans showed that when adults were asked to interpret facial expressions, they used their prefrontal cortex (the executive center of the brain) to do so and usually correctly identified the emotion. Adolescents on the other hand used their amygdala (the seat of fear, anger, and emotional arousal). Teens were far more likely to misinterpret facial cues and mistake fear, surprise and worry for anger.

Based on what is going on in her brain, it could be that your daughter is genuinely misinterpreting your expressions of frustration, worry, or irritation as fury. She may actually be hearing your talking as combative yelling! These misread emotional cues can quickly escalate any conversation into a conflict.

So how do we communicate?

Adolescence is a critical time when young people need to learn how to communicate and resolve conflict respectfully. Learning more about the teenage brain may help you get the empathy and understanding you need to be a good “emotional coach” while you and your teen work on how to communicate effectively.

Here are some tips for communicating effectively with teens that may help. Also, remember a couple of things as you parent with the teenage brain in mind:

  • Biology is not the same as destiny. Some teens’ prefrontal cortices are right there when they need it and others are more emotionally impulsive when it comes to interpreting emotions. All teenagers need adults who care enough about them enough to communicate and connect with them even when it is hard.
  • Brain science is not an excuse for your teen to be disrespectful. It is also not an excuse for you to yell at your teen and then blame his or her response on the amygdala. Be honest about your emotions and the tone you use when you communicate with your teenager. Listen respectfully to their feedback. Check in with other family members about how you express your emotions.
  • Talk to your teenager about their brain. If teenagers are able to take a couple of deep breaths their prefrontal cortices may have time to catch up and help them correctly interpret emotional cues.