FAMILY MATTERS

I try hard to understand my teenager's feelings about things but whenever I stand my discipline ground, I hear remarks like, “You never listen” or “You just don't understand.” What am I doing wrong?

Probably nothing. For a couple of generations now, parents have been hammered by the experts about the dangers of being communication Neanderthals, and about the “how-to” magic of being psychologically savvy listeners. It's no surprise so many wonder “What's wrong?” when their kids accuse them of being cruel dictators.

Going back 100 years, a farm most likely sat on the spot you now live. That farm mom had a 5% chance of having a high-school education. But she could have instinctively told you, “Kids won't understand or like much of what you do as a parent. They will someday, and that's what matters most.”

Nowadays parents are made to feel incompetent if Sherlock doesn't understand them. Obviously, they're passively listening instead of actively listening. They're using a “you message” when an “I message” is called for. Their ratio of positive to negative statements is only 3 to 1. It needs to be at least 7 to 1 for maximum results.

Certainly parents can communicate poorly. Teens do bring out the worst of interaction styles in us adults. And certainly there are plenty of ways to make a tense discipline confrontation worse. But my experience with parents, teens and discipline has taught me repeatedly that, when a parent is truly trying to understand the child, more often than not, it is the child who is being unreasonable rather than the parent.

When Holmes accuses, “You never listen to me,” or Harmony whines, “Just once I wish you would see my side,” I regularly find that the parent listened quite empathetically, with heroic patience even. In the end, she just didn't change her decision, and that's what brought on the recriminations.

The only foolproof way to be perceived as an awesome listener is to give your teen exactly what she wants. “You mean you'd like to go to the mall unsupervised with your friends? Of course! Now I'm hearing you!”

Unfortunately, the cost of avoiding the poor listener accusation — i.e., giving in — is way too high a price for a parent, and more so for the child. Better to listen as long as you see fit, then quietly end the discussion with, “I do understand your point, but I don't agree with it. And I must do what's best for you because I love you.” (That “love” line really makes kids mad because down deep they know you mean it.)

Active listening, to use modern psychological jargon, means hearing what the speaker truly means. Okay, then, what Oral is often saying when she says “You don't listen” is really “You don't change your mind to agree with me.”

So, next time you get charged with lack of listening, you could reflect back: “What I'm hearing you say is that I'm not agreeing with you.” So you see, even if you're “not listening,” you're actually therapeutically listening.

Tricky stuff, this psychology.

For more of Dr. Ray Guarendi's wit and wisdom, visit DrRay.com.