Communicating between Generations
It’s about emotional fluency – healthy emotions grow at home
As a psychotherapist, I frequently hear from parents or guardians at their wits’ end saying that their ‘teenagers’ do not communicate with them or anyone else and the same young adults exasperated that they are communicating 24/7. Communication patterns have changed with the ubiquitous nature of personal smartphones especially.
More time is spent navel-gazing towards our phones (that’s everyone by the way, young and old) which means less time making and sustaining eye contact and actually speaking with others in the community. This means less opportunity for inter-subjective, in-person, physical interaction to practice reading and interpreting those non-verbal cues that are so important in healthy communication and in developing emotional fluency.
If we want to encourage emotional fluency in our young people, we must nurture a landscape in our homes for emotions to grow and develop. By creating ‘safe’, non-judgmental environments within our homes and where the adolescent-parent relationship is on neutral ground, where every family member feels heard, valued, respected, and understood through a shared sense of patience, acceptance, empathy, tolerance, and ultimately, joy.
Sounds idyllic doesn’t it and who wouldn’t want this in their homes and relationships, but emotional fluency doesn’t just happen, it is evolved and developed within the parent-child relationship from infancy right up to and through adulthood. It is not enough that we love and care for our children. They have to feel loved and cared for. This is why we pratice communication with our children and young people rather than simply speaking it.
Ask yourself how you show acts of love, care, or affection to your teenage offspring. Perhaps having a hot chocolate in the car when you collect them from school or having their favourite jeans out of the wash almost as soon as they went into the laundry basket because you know that they will be looking for them over the weekend. Ensuring you make eye contact and smile at them regularly, saying I love you at appropriate moments and offering a hug when needed. Now think how might your teenager be letting you know that they love and appreciate you even if saying I love you is not in their vocabulary.
Might there be the odd cup of tea without being asked, a dishwasher load that went on without a discussion, a favourite TV show recorded when you were running late and would otherwise miss? These are small acts of love that make all the difference and to be openly appreciated.
When we talk about, practice, and even play with feelings and emotions at home with our kids and young adults we raise people who are more empathic and are better able to self-regulate their own emotional arousal.
Throughout adolescence, we are seeking to support our young people in developing emotional fluency so that they might grow better attuned to their own emotional needs so that they can develop a more in-depth understanding of why they feel how they do in particular situations or in relation to particular people, etc. This understanding will enable them to read emotional cues in others better too. They can struggle to convey their emotional state with words due to the complex nature of feelings so they tend to over-rely on behaviour as a means of communicating confused and conflicted complex emotions.
Always remember that your young ones have been studying you closely since birth. They know every muscle movement of your face and body, every tonal inflection or dip in your voice, every sigh (frustration or exhaustion), they are mindful of every mindless gesture you have (a twist of a strand of hair, a twitching foot, an unconscious hum, a facial contortion). They know your rhythms, sounds, movements, and body cues. They are experts in how you relate to them and in anticipating what you will do or say next. Try to use this to your advantage.
15-Minutes to play with this:
Conversation Analysis is an activity I often use with young people which I believe helps to build emotional fluency. You can try telling them the same (short) story three times with different requests for interaction each time. The story should be one that you have a strong feeling about and that may include them to help keep their interest.
Offer your young person a pen and paper and ask them to …
On first telling – observe my face: Ask that they carefully observe your face throughout the first telling of the story. They will probably note things like widening eyes, averted gaze, a furrowed brow, a frowning mouth or clenched jaw.
On second telling – observe my body: Ask that this time they only pay attention to your body language. They should note things such as hunched shoulders, folded arms, bouncing leg, etc”.
On third telling – observe my speech: Ask that this final time that they attend only to your speech but that they include what you say and how you say it. They should note what type of words you use, ie positive, negative, strong, gentle, kind, aggressive’ but also what is the emotional tone of your words as reflected in the prosody of voice, ie pitch, pace, tone, rhythm/speed.
Now ask that they reflect back to you how they think you are feeling about the story you just told. They might say, “I believe that you are angry that this happened” but they should also be able to draw on what they observed of your facial expression, body language, and speech patterns in making their conclusion.
Throughout Health Month, Joanna Fortune will be suggesting playful ways to connect with your children this year. Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting Series of books, solamh.com