College of LAS « Illinois

Speech Communication

Communicating with Teens

You have to listen to your teens before they will listen to you.

John Caughlin

Those public service ads that advise parents to "just talk to their teenagers about drugs—they'll listen" should come with a warning label, says John Caughlin, an LAS professor of speech communication and author of a new study on parent-child communication.

The "just-talk, they'll listen" ads are "misleading," says Caughlin. He discovered that if parents haven't already established a pattern of listening to their teens—even about less critical issues—"there is a decent chance that the teen will not listen to the parent when the topic turns to drugs and alcohol." In his study, Caughlin set out to discover if those parents and their adolescent children who frequently engaged in the communication pattern known as "demand/withdraw" tended to have various "negative health outcomes," in particular, poor self-esteem and drug use. Demand in this context means nagging or criticizing and withdraw means avoiding discussing the issue related to the other person's criticisms. Caughlin found that frequent demand/withdraw in conversations was indeed associated with low self-esteem and high alcohol and drug use—for both adolescents and parents. Just as important, he discovered that criticisms and avoidance were related to adolescents' drug use, even when the topic of conversation was mundane, for example, adolescents making too much noise at home or not keeping their bedroom clean.

Explicit "sit-down" conversations about alcohol and drug use may be less important than the ongoing socialization that occurs between parents and adolescents, Caughlin says. "If parents and adolescents are able to deal with conflict in constructive ways, it may help the parents remain an important influence on the adolescents' values, even as the importance of peers rises. By all means, talk to your kids about drugs," Caughlin says, "but be sure you listen to them too."

Summer 2004