Do you find yourself experiencing communication whip lash with your teen? You say or do something, and by the time your teen processes it and responds, it’s as if he’s somehow heard the complete opposite of what you intended? If so, it might not just be due to a generation gap, vocabulary shortcomings, or intentional rebellion. It could, instead, be fueled by depression or shame.
Those who struggle with depression or shame can easily (and unintentionally) twist words in their minds, to the point that they aren’t accurately hearing your (or others’) actual words. It’s almost like how someone with dyslexia reads letters incorrectly. The good news is that, like dyslexia, once diagnosed, we can train our brains to rewire themselves, in a way, correcting the communication problem.
Step 1: Offer Empathy without Judgment
The importance of non-judgmental empathy cannot be overstated. Perhaps your knee-jerk response to realizing your teen hears something or interprets a behavior or event in a way completely contrary to your intention is to degrade him, tell him he’s crazy if he thinks you don’t love him, or simply to exert your parental authority, insisting he accept your interpretation as the correct one.
Such authoritarian parenting leaves little room for the kind of nurturing and understanding your teen needs in order to evaluate the situation and be willing to consider re-interpreting something that seems to him to be very clear, as clear as your own understanding of the situation is to you.
By criticizing his ability to think clearly, right away, you’re actually undermining the very thing you need on your side. Instead, you should gently ask a few questions, like, “What did you hear when I told you that I love you?” or “Why do you think that when your teacher said you were improving?” Then listen, offering only empathy. Say things like, “Wow, I’m sure that really hurt.” Or “I’m sorry that you thought I meant that.”
Step 2: Attempt To Discern the Root Problem
Your teen likely has no clue what’s going on or why he hears things the way he does. After you’ve expressed empathy, you might find him sharing more about things that people say and do that hurt him. This is shame talking. You might ask if this statement by Ed Welch resonates with him: ”Somehow, from the mouths of other people to your ear, all words of blessing and encouragement get tumbled upside down and backward and confirm your suspicions about yourself. You are an abject failure. Unloved. Unlovable. And everyone knows it.”
Now, instead of dealing with individual situations and arguing for a re-interpretation of them, you can deal with the root deception, which is contrary to God’s Truth. Strong emotions may be leading now, but your teen can learn to let a renewed mind guide him away from natural tendencies (Romans 12:2).
In Part 2, we’ll look at two more very important steps toward victory over shame, providing a solution to communication whiplash.