Born and raised in the great state of Texas, I’m a big western movie fan. I own more Clint Eastwood
and John Wayne movies than I should admit. There’s something about a high noon showdown that reminds me
of the way I unintentionally square off against my stubborn children sometimes. I’m guessing you can relate.
The foundation of any relationship is communication. To improve parent-child communication, a simple but
difficult strategy is to show up at high noon, drop our gun holster on the ground and kick it away with our hands
empty saying, “let’s talk about this, what’s going on?” I mean, we’re not really looking for a fight, right? Sure,
exchanging pot shots can feel pretty darn good in a heated moment, but what does it accomplish? What does it
teach my sons (of which I have two)?
I’m not surprised that often the most rapid successes I’ve witnessed as a husband, father, and
therapist have actually come from applying the same principles I use in couples counseling. We open up
communication by showing we don’t want to fight, but want to understand where our child is coming from. As
the Residential Care Director, I find that my most successful staff has this quality: Seek first to Understand.
Your son or daughter seeks out these staff when they feel upset. Why? Because they know that even if the
staff member does not agree, approve, or do what your child wants, they will be heard. I offer a beginning
template for how to be the Speaker and Listener when you want to open up communication with your child or
other family members.
First, we unintentionally sabotage any influence we would have had on our child with a harsh approach. If
John Wayne were a therapist, he’d say, “You fired the first shot, what did you expect to happen?” We may use
blaming statements, sarcasm, or an angry tone. No wonder they fire back! Who doesn’t feel vulnerable and
defensive when criticized? I know I do. Instead of emphasizing failures, try to give them a road map to success-
what is it you want to see more of and why? “Stop being so lazy and do your chores!” is very different from,
“When you do the dishes, I feel appreciated.” It also goes a long way to praise when you see the behaviors you seek.
Second, when your teen is talking, it can be hard to listen. Like, really listen. This is a skill that takes a lot of
practice because it’s more than just remembering the words spoken. You’re also listening for unspoken
emotions and trying to step into their shoes for a moment. Until your teen believes you really understand them,
there will always be a gulf between you. The best way to show we really understand someone is to repeat what
they say and elaborate. Express how you are trying to put yourself in their shoes. Lastly validate how they feel
even if you don’t agree with their point of view. “If I understand you correctly, you’re mad because you feel like
you’ve already earned your phone back by getting your grades up and shouldn’t have to wait until your report
card gets here next week. I can see where you’re coming from. If I had earned something but had to wait to get
it, I’d be frustrated too. Is that correct?” Asking for confirmation that you understand them gives them a chance
to clarify their point. Once they feel understood, then the negotiating and compromising can begin. You still
need to set assertive boundaries and explain how they demanded their phone back was inappropriate, but you
may want to wait until after you’ve validated them to send this message. Otherwise you’ll be right back squaring
off with your hands on your six-shooters.