Nonviolent Communication and Raising Teenagers

Publisher’s note:

Teenagers in our time face opportunities, challenges, and pressures not seen in previous generations. A salient example is the documented effect of social media on teen’s mental health.
This article does not cover mental health crises, and is not intended to replace professional support. Please seek help if you or someone you know needs it.
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List of suicide crisis lines, organized by country:

Raising Teenagers

In this article we look at the connection between Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and the important and sometimes challenging task of raising teenagers.

NVC is a process that focuses on creating a high quality of connection through empathy and honesty.

When we are connected, good-will is easier to access, and mutually satisfying outcomes are more readily attainable.

Effective communication with teenagers using NVC

NVC gives you the best tools for communicating effectively with your teen.

However, NVC is not a magic wand! NVC is a set of powerful tools — and there is a difference between having tools and being skillful with them!

Even if the best time to begin developing your skills was before your child was born, the second-best time is now!

Set your intention to develop these skills, and let’s look next at some principles that will guide you in creating a caring and satisfying connection with your teen.

NVC principles for raising teens

In service of your skill-building process, here are some guiding principles to support connection, clarity, and mutuality in the process of raising your teen:

Connection before solution

In your interactions, focus on the connection first rather than on a specific solution or outcome. Once connection is established, the process of finding solutions naturally becomes collaborative and more likely to lead to outcomes that are mutually satisfying.

Without connection first, your teen could take action on their own, leaving you frustrated and feeling somewhat powerless and possibly resentful.

Without connection first, your teen could experience a solution or strategy coming from you as something being imposed on them, which they will probably resist and resent.

When we do things that generate resentment our relationships are negatively impacted. That’s why we start with connection first and then co-create the solutions or outcomes.

Balance short-term and long-term objectives

Remember that for most of your relationship your child will be an adult, and you will relate to them in that way. Therefore, balance your short-term objectives with your long-term objectives.

For example, a short-term objective might be that your child comes home on a weekend night by 12 midnight. A long-term objective might be to have trust and open lines of communication for the rest of your life.

If your child does not come back at the time they agreed, how do you avoid the extremes of permissiveness (letting them do whatever they want) on the one hand, and on the other hand imposing a punishment that will hurt the connection? How do you handle these challenging moments in a way that attends to both your short-term and long-term objectives?

The tools NVC gives you, when used with skillfulness, can help you navigate and get through challenging conversations. With empathy and honesty we move toward more connection, build trust, and co-create mutually agreeable solutions.

NVC helps you work out the immediate issue and care for the long-term connection.

Check your intention first!

Before approaching your teen, check your intention! Is your intention to be right? Is it to cause a specific outcome to happen?

NVC would tell you to have the intention to connect first, so that any solutions or outcomes are more likely to work for both of you!

Starting by focusing on a high quality of connection often means letting go of being right in order to be closer so that both your needs can be met.

Learn life-connected ways to motivate your teen!

Motivate your teen based on connection, needs, and mutual giving.

If you attempt to motivate your teen through guilt, shame, duty, obligation, to get a reward, to avoid a punishment, or through using “should” or “have-to” language — this will likely lead to disconnection and resentment.

If there is a long history of coercion, manipulation, pressuring, and demands between you and your teen, it may take them some time to trust that you are coming from a new place. Stay persistent in your love and care as you develop your skills.

Get empathy about your teen somewhere other than your teen!

If you find that you are in pain in relation to your teenager, getting empathic attention for your feelings somewhere else will be extremely helpful.

When we are in emotional pain we tend to lash out or withdraw. In other words, when we most need others’ love and support is when we act in ways that make it least likely that we will receive that love and support.

Empathy is a universal human need that is satisfied when we are deeply understood. When you receive high quality empathy you come away more connected to your feelings, your needs, and your potential requests — AND with a lower emotional charge.

Once you are more self-connected and know what you want, it’s easier to set your intention to connection rather than wanting the other person to know how much pain you’re in by blasting them verbally.

Once you are more self-connected and know what you want, it’s a more productive time to have an important conversation with your teen than when you are hurting emotionally and in need of empathy.

The general pattern is: if you can’t give the other person empathy, it’s because you need it, and if the other person can’t give you empathy, it’s because they need it.

Even between people with a high skill level, the conversation can get stuck if both people want to be heard at the same time!

Handling your emotional charge elsewhere will help you stay more connected to your teen through the process of empathy and honesty.

Punishment is counterproductive

When you rely on punishment for behavioral compliance, you are creating the conditions for disconnection between you and your teen, and for them to care less about your needs over time. More on this below…

Parenting teenagers: using NVC to build trust and understanding with your teen

The practice of NVC for parenting teenagers — like NVC in any context — has three areas of focus:

  1. self-connection, which includes self-empathy,
  2. honesty, also known as self-expression, and
  3. empathy, or the presence and care you bring to listening to the other person.

The NVC Tree of Life
© 2012 by Inbal Kashtan

Each of these three areas contains the same four components: observation, feeling, need, and request.

It’s not necessary that you speak only these components or that you do so perfectly. What is more important is that you put your attention on them along with the intention to connect.

For example, in response to you saying no to your teen attending a party you feel uncomfortable with them going to, your child might say, “I hate you. You’re so mean!”

As this might be painful to hear, NVC would suggest you first go to silent self-empathy. What this means is that you turn your attention inward to connect with your own feelings and needs. Perhaps top of mind is the thought, “How dare she talk to me that way! After all I’ve done for her!” So you notice any judgments, thoughts, evaluations, interpretations and you give those thoughts empathy first — in other words, you translate them into feelings and needs. “How dare she talk to me that way! After all I’ve done for her!” might then become: “I feel annoyed and disappointed because I really value care and consideration!” As your self-connection winds deeper, you might find sadness coming from a longing for more closeness as well as a desire to be seen for your care.

Once you have translated your judgments and are more self-connected — in other words, more clear about your feelings, needs, and requests — you can choose to go to empathy or honesty.

In empathy you might let your child know that you understand it’s hard for them that you said no to going to this party at this time. You might give them some understanding about how much it would mean to them.

One important distinction here is to understand that empathy does not mean agreement! By offering empathy I’m simply willing to give the other person the experience that I understand, I get it, even if I have a different perspective on the situation.

Once the other person feels heard there is a greater likelihood that they will be willing to hear you out. You can then switch to NVC honesty — expressing your observations, feelings, needs, and requests as well as other information that moves you closer to connection and mutually agreeable outcomes.

A person who has mastered NVC can move fluidly between these three areas — self-connection, empathy, and honesty — as needed.

With these skills:
What could you do? How far could you go? How much of a sense of partnership-in-life with your teen could you create?

Nonviolent Communication strategies for dealing with teen emotions — and NVC techniques, including empathy and connection, for parenting teenagers

Most of the NVC strategies for how to work constructively with your teen’s emotions can fall into the three categories above: self-connection, honesty, and empathy.

Empathy is being present with the other person and helping them have the experience of being understood. This does not mean that you agree! But you are creating a safe space for them to express themselves, and to be heard with care and compassion about what their experience is.

Being able to offer your teen empathy is one of the biggest gifts you can give them!

However, what gets in the way of giving the other person empathy is when we are in pain!

One way you handle that in NVC is by giving yourself self-empathy AND by getting empathy from others.

One of the most valuable things individuals, couples, and families can do is to create a circle of support so that you can receive empathy when you need it. Your empathy buddies are not there to take sides or to tell you that you’re right! They are there to support the relationship, the connection, and your interior clarity with regard to your feelings, needs, and requests.

Self-empathy can help us get to a place of self-compassion as well as to be able to be present with the other person.

And yet, self-connection and empathy for the other are not enough for true connection or relationship.

Expressing what is true for you in a way that is also self-responsible, being vulnerable — not in the sense of weak but in the sense of real and transparent — can go a long way toward creating closeness.

Because it can be challenging for the other person to listen to you with empathy if they are presently in pain, it can be useful at times to offer empathy first before going to your honesty.

Families exist in the context of community, and we need to break out of the belief that we need to ‘go it alone.’

Don’t try to be everything for your child. Use other trusted adults as resources. And rely on professional support when needed.

These are all some strategies to consider as you navigate the best ways to deal with your teen’s emotions.

Conflict resolution with teenagers using NVC

NVC gives you excellent tools for basic conflict prevention and resolution, with anyone in any context, including with your teen.

Some important principles to consider when trying to resolve a conflict with your teen:

  • There can be immense value in having a 3rd party mediator or facilitator to help you and your teen get through a conflict in a constructive way. After all, there is a difference between having a tool and being skillful with a tool.
  • Remember that if you can’t give empathy it’s because you need it! It’s ok to ask for “time outs” during a conversation in order to receive empathy (or do self-empathy) so that you can come back to the conversation more self-connected, clearer, and with a lower emotional charge.
  • If your teen can’t give you empathy it’s because they need it! If in these moments you can switch to empathic listening great! And if you can’t, consider taking a time out so that you and/or your teen can get empathy somewhere else. As long as one of you can shift into listening, the conversation is usually able to proceed. A skilled NVC mediator will be able to identify these points in the conversation and give each person empathy, as needed, so that you don’t get stuck!

The graphic below illustrates how emotions can get in the way of simply connecting.

The process of empathy, self-connection, and honesty helps to settle the emotional charge so that dialog can take place.

Understanding the Role of Feelings in Conflict
© Kalapa and Alan Rafael Seid

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Raising Teenagers

Punishment is counterproductive

Parents will sometimes ask, “why not punishment? It works in my house!”

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC said he would have parents with this belief ask themselves two questions:

  1. What do you want the other person to do?
  2. What do you want their reasons to be for doing it?

For example: You want your child to tidy their room. Do you want their reason to be because if they don’t mom or dad will get angry? Or do you want them to tidy their room because they see how it meets their needs (for example, beauty, order, and ease)?

If you want your teenager to be honest and truthful with you, create an environment in which it is safe to do so. If you punish your teen for telling the truth, they will become disincentivized from doing so!

So for parenting in general, avoid punishment.

Instead of punishment, you can have a conversation ahead of time in which you co-create consequences. When they agree to something, you could follow it up with some version of, “if you don’t, then what do you think would make sense to have happen?”

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and Raising Teenagers

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and parenting.

NVC has shown time and again that children who grow up in NVC-informed households are more self-connected, emotionally regulated, and exhibit stronger leadership skills at a younger age than their peers.

Because of the trust-building process involved, and the fact that the solutions include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC for raising teens predictably gives you outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on NVC & parenting can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict, and
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on parenting teens, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on parenting… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!