Despite living in the most technologically advanced and connected world in human history, one of the most universally shared experiences across cultures is the difficulty that growing teenagers and their parents have communicating with each other. In fact, the attendance at IANA’s October 2019 event on parent-teen communication exposed that, while many of us are aware of this challenge, we are also unsure of how to approach it. It is my opinion, after attending the event, that the best approach may be simply re-enacting the event our daily lives.
What I saw at the event was something that, in my experience, rarely takes place in the privacy of our own homes. I saw parents and their children alongside one another, speaking calmly and candidly about their concerns relating to the different cultural expectations of living in India and the United States. I heard the concern that many parents expressed, that the values that they hold dear would by lost in their children to the whirlwind of American culture. I heard children speak of the feeling of being torn between two worlds: halfway between the Indian culture they experience in the home and the American culture they experience outside of it.
It was clear that not everybody agreed on all that was said. However, crucially, the environment of the event and the approach to the discussion created an environment in which the participants felt comfortable saying the things they thought. I think what so often happens in our day-to-day lives is that parents and teens neglect to take the time and care needed to create this environment in which both parties can be open and honest with the other. When teenagers, who are already going through some of the most stressful and formative years of their lives, do not feel comfortable coming to their parents with the things that are stressing them, or perhaps fear that they will be punished and reprimanded for perceived shortcomings, they will shut down the critical line of communication between themselves and their parents.
The consequences of this breakdown are dire for both the teen and the parent. The teen, surrounded by sources of anxiety in their lives, does not rely on their parents for help. Instead, they withdraw, attempting to get by on their own strength and minimal experience, or perhaps relying on equally inexperienced friends instead. The parent, unaware of what their child is experiencing, is unable to offer assistance or perform their highest obligation to their children: to keep them safe. Under these circumstances, it is not particularly unlikely that the teenager will one day find themselves in a compromising, perhaps even dangerous, situation and will never tell their parents about it for fear of the consequences. Because of this, I think the most crucial step to fostering good parent-teen communication is cultivating an environment in which it can take place.
For teenagers like myself, I think this is best done by realizing and respecting the fact that parents have the wisdom afforded to them by decades of life experience, and that we can rely on that experience as we navigate the challenges of young adult life. Secondly, it is important to realize that, even though it may not come across in the way parents communicate, they ultimately want their children to be safe and happy, and to impart their experience to us to achieve that end.
For parents, I think the single best thing that can be done to foster a productive space for communication with your teenager is for parents to bear in mind that their teenagers are still growing and trying to figure out how to operate in the world. Teenagers will not always choose the wisest option in their lives. For example, they may do poorly in school, they may pursue romantic relationships, or they may even fall into substance abuse. What they need in those times above all else, above reprimand and punishment and talking-tos, is guidance. While I am sure it can be difficult to remain calm and measured in your response to your teenager who can’t fully appreciate the gravity of their misstep, whatever it may be, you must realize that your perspective is one that was gained and honed over a lifetime that spans far more years than your child’s. By remaining calm and providing guidance, you can create a relationship with your teenager in which they feel comfortable seeking you out for guidance, and telling you about things that they might otherwise feel they need to hide. Doing this demonstrates to your child that you’re on their side and want them to prosper, as opposed to another source of stress in their already stricken lives.
In sum, I feel that the IANA community event of October was a perfect example of how we all can work to improve our communication skills with our parents or teens, as may be the case. Conversations like the one in October should be taking place on smaller scales, more often, in settings like around the dinner table, or in the car, or before bed. However, they can only take place when parents and teenagers create the space for them by acknowledging and empathizing with the other’s perspective and life experience. In doing so, teenagers can feel as though they have a support system to help them through this difficult transitional period of their lives, and parents can rest easy knowing about the challenges their children are facing and how they’re working to overcome them.