Here comes a communication roadblock that I bet you weren’t expecting – reassuring. How, you ask, can reassuring be an impediment to good communication? Shouldn’t all good parents try to reassure their adolescents when they need support. Although on the surface reassurance sounds innocent and helpful, like the other communication barriers, it can drive a wedge between parent and child.
Reassurance seems like a way to comfort the person but actually it does the opposite. Reassurance does not allow the comforter to feel what the other person is feeling – it is a form of emotional withdrawal. It is used by people who like the idea of being helpful but do not want to experience the emotional work that goes with really being comforting.
“I’m sure that things will get better. They always do.”
“By next week I’m sure that you will have forgotten all about this.”
Are you reassured by these statements? They are actually quite dismissive of whatever the issue is that the adolescent is facing and of her feelings, which are very real to her in the present.
A better approach is to listen with empathy. A simple ‘mm-hmm’ can connote understanding which serves to encourage the teen to continue; you are actively listening and right there with her feelings.
Even attentive silence is often more reassuring than words can be. Silence allows the person to think about what to say, gives him space to experience the multitude of feelings swirling within, allowing him to go inside and express himself. Silent responsiveness is essential to good listening (as long as the silence isn’t excessive, which is not desirable) and therefore essential to good communication, of which listening is a big part.
So the next time you are tempted to pour on the reassurance, instead block the urge and try attentive silence with a soft ‘mm-hmm’ instead. Then just be there and listen for the feelings.