‘Hurry up! It’s time to go.’
‘Do your homework now. You should have done it already!’
‘You will study tonight.’
Nobody likes to be told what to do. It gets our back up and makes us resistant to what’s being asked.
Even though we don’t like it, it’s easy to slip into that kind of talk when speaking to our teens. In fact, correction and direction is the default. As their parents we’ve been telling them what to do in one form or another since birth. It’s easy to think we know best, all the time. We’re bigger. We’re smarter. We are more experienced. We know better.
And honestly, sometimes it seems to be the only way to get them to do what needs to be done. It feels efficient.
The thing is … it doesn’t really work.
We know this from our personal experience. Remember when your parents hassled you? Did you immediately accede to their requests, compliantly and deferentially obeying immediately?
The more controlling they were, the more resentful you likely felt. And even if you did follow the correction and direction it’s unlikely that you did it willingly – with “joy in your heart”.
A new study of over 1,000 adolescents aged 14 and 15 explored this issue. Psychology researcher, Netta Weinstein, considered the way teens responded to instructions from parents in three conditions. The instructions were recorded so teens could listen and then describe how they would feel if their own mothers spoke to them in that way.
Some instructions were given in controlling ways, imposing pressure and expectation. It is the verbal equivalent of a physical shove. When we use controlling language we’re trying to ‘push’ the listener (our teen in this case) into taking some action. This is where we are correcting and directing. “Do this. Do that. Hurry up. Listen to me. Put your things away. Do your homework. You will do well on that assignment.”
Other teens were spoken to in autonomy-supportive tones. The words were the same. But the tone was supportive and encouraging. And neutral tones were also analysed as a control condition.
Weinstein found that teens responded much better when instructions were given in an autonomy-supportive tone of voice rather than in a controlling or even neutral manner.
It’s probably not much of a surprise. But it leaves us with a practical problem.
How can we ask our teens to do something, without being controlling or demanding? What does autonomy-support look and sound like?
Just like adults, teens don’t respond well when we correct and direct. Too much yelling and telling means our conversations lack connections. We aren’t talking with our kids but talking at them. When our children feel controlled this gives them something to push against. Force creates resistance.
When we communicate in an autonomy-supportive way, we support our child’s choice and volition. We encourage and support. Autonomy-supportive requests allow teens to have their own sense of choice and self-expression, even while they are doing what we’ve asked. So, rather than yelling and telling, we’re supporting and empowering our teens to make decisions for themselves that are consistent with their values (and ideally ours!).
So, how do we support and empower?
First, we stop telling and yelling. A barrage of correction and direction ruptures relationships and massacres motivation.
Second, we slow down. As we reduce the pressure and intensity we allow our brains (and our children’s brains) to work through conversations more rationally.
Third, have empowering, deferential conversations OUT of the moment rather than in the heat of battle. When emotions are high, intelligence is low. Make sure everyone is calm when you talk about what needs to be done.
Fourth, when something requires attention we invite with gentle encouragement and appreciation? For example:
“What kind of time frame are you working on with that assignment for school? How can I help you so there’s no stress at the end?”
“Mornings have been stressful lately. What do you think we can do to make them work a little better?”
Our idea here is to work on solutions together. We raise the issue. We talk about how they feel and how we feel, and then we hand over the solution-finding to them. If they have no solutions we gently offer ideas that we think will be helpful and ask them how they feel about it.
And when things go pear-shaped?
Get curious, not furious.
Try to slow down and see the world through your teen’s eyes. What is your child feeling? What is their perspective? Understanding your child’s perspective shows them you value them and their feelings. It also helps you to know what they need in order to respond well to you, and make good, positive choices.
Things to say:
‘What can we do to solve this?’
‘What can I do to help you meet your need?’
‘Where do we go from here?’
If your child struggles with a request or instruction, explore that with them. Encourage initiative, offer choices and problem-solve with your child. When your teen is given choice and responsibility for their own life, they become more accountable and responsible.
A critical part of autonomy support is letting them make mistakes. And when they do make a poor decision, don’t criticise, laugh or belittle them. Instead, talk through the possible consequences of that course of action, and brainstorm other paths.
The old school way might be faster. “Be quiet and do as you’re told” has a certain appeal. But the research shows that a respectful, autonomy-supportive approach builds better relationships, gets better results – and it grows better people.