How to talk to your parents about how you feel: challenges and tips

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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou 

Communicating with your parents in an uninhibited and honest way can often seem daunting. For many people, talking openly to parents can turn out to be awkward, challenging, anxiety-provoking, and (in some scenarios) straight-up Herculean. Sometimes, it’s just about a difficult teacher at school. Sometimes, it’s a simple problem that needs solving. Sometimes, it’s something far more serious and pressing. Irrespective of the topic of discussion, you’d rather open up to anybody—peers, friends, siblings, or even Google—than your parents. Maybe you tell yourself that you don’t want your parents to worry and get upset, that it isn’t important enough for them, that they won’t have the time to deal with it right now, or worse, that they’ll judge you, look at you differently, or misunderstand you. 

This isn’t something peculiar or abnormal, in fact, it’s quite common. However, it’s important to note that in a tug-of-war between one’s excuses (or even one’s most valid reasons or reservations) and the benefits of opening up to one’s parents in an honest, unfiltered way—the likelihood of the rope jolting towards the latter is quite high.

Why is it important to communicate effectively with your parents?

  • Talking about your problems can help reduce stress and give you much-needed catharsis or vent.
  • Family communication and function can affect your psychological well-being (especially during adolescence). 
  • Researchers have studied the role of communication in a happy and balanced family. According to the Circumplex Model of Marital and Family Systems, a family functions at an optimal level when it strikes a balance on cohesion (family bond/connectedness) and adaptability (ability to reorganise in response to changes and stressors), i.e., the family is able to be structurally and flexibly connected and separated. Communication, particularly positive communication, is the “facilitating  dimension” that enables families to change levels of cohesion and adaptability. 
  • Communication with your family is important for your development, for it has connections with your identity formation, identity exploration, role-taking ability, moral reasoning, and even physical maturity during the adolescent years.  

Why is it so difficult to talk to your parents?

1. Different vantage points

Psychologist Patricia Noeller points out that adolescents and parents don’t see their families the same way. According to research, children reported that their families were less open, cohesive and adaptable, and had more problems. Their parents, on the other hand, didn’t take as negative a view. There’s a possibility that you and your parents may be looking at your family differently. Maybe you and your parents have different opinions. This can make it difficult for you to “renegotiate” your relationship with your parents, your role in the parent-child relationship, and the rules that are in place. You may want more independence and autonomy and wish to “break free”, but what may be preventing this dialogue from taking place is that you and your parents might be looking at the situation from different vantage points. 

2. Shame

Even in scenarios where you have an open relationship with your parents and can freely talk with them, you may struggle to talk openly about certain subjects. There are bound to be some topics or incidents that trigger feelings of shame and embarrassment. Talking to your parents about them may make you nervous or stressed and prevent you from having an open dialogue. Topics such as mental health or sexuality can be particularly hard to discuss because they’re clothed in social stigma. Social psychologist Erving Goffman has studied stigma and pointed out that “concealment” and problems with disclosure are related to stigma. For instance, you may find it hard to talk to your parents about your mental health challenges. You may also feel the need to hide these mental health challenges in part because we’ve all learnt to look at certain things as taboo and matters that need to be shushed. 

3. Negative perceptions

Feeling anxious about being judged, perceived negatively, or even misunderstood prevents us from opening up to our parents and the adults around us. You may not want your parents to think less of you or be disappointed. In such a situation, silence may seem easier than talking. 

4. Fear

Sometimes, just the fear of admonishments, scoldings, or making one’s parents angry can make us afraid to talk openly to them.

 

Tips for having an effective conversation with your parents and other adults

1. Define the intention of the conversation for yourself

If you know that this is going to be a difficult conversation, define the purpose or the outcome you’re looking for. Do you need your parents to meet a need, clarify something, or solve a problem? Once you figure this out, the objective will be clearer to you, and therefore, easier to focus on during the talk with your parents.

2. Prepare and organise your thoughts

Whether you want to write things down, type them out on your phone, or practise it in front of the mirror, prepare yourself before having the talk. Try to organise your thoughts so that you feel more confident during the conversation. Once this is done, determine a time and a place. Tell your parents you have something important to discuss instead of catching them off guard when they are working or are too tired to be fully present and hear you. Ask them when is a good time to talk. Try adding an activity, like taking a walk with your parents or dinner time, to ease your nerves.

3. Use the words “I feel”

Instead of only stating facts and opinions, try telling your parents how you feel about something. Also, the pronoun “I” carries the weight of accountability. For example, saying, “I feel like you don’t think I’m responsible enough to make my own decisions” could be more effective than “You never let me do what I want.” Avoid using words like “always” and “never” (for example, “You never listen to me” or “You always do this”), as this can automatically put the other person on the defensive. 

4. Dispel negative emotions 

If you need to talk to your parents (or any trusted adult) about having a hard time, a matter that’s causing anxiety, a huge mistake or a bad grade but you feel overwhelmed and distracted, and are struggling to open up, try and tell them that you will be bringing up something that is difficult for you to talk about. Speaking about your feelings may help reduce the intensity of the emotions so that they might cease to weigh you down as much. Moreover, your parents, teachers or any other trusted adult will then be aware of your mental state and they may take the extra initiative to make a comfortable space for you and hear you out.

5. Try to understand their perspective

There will be many things that you and your parents don’t agree on. The generation gap plays a big role. Listening to them and understanding their point of view may help bridge the gap between the two different vantage points. Having an approach that relies on intelligence/rationality rather than emotion/affect could clarify differences and ease the process of you and your parents understanding each other better.

6. Adopt the “Yes, and” stance.

When your parents offer advice and suggestions in an attempt to be helpful, try and use the “Yes, and…” approach. Say, your mother was to suggest a lesson plan to deal with your academic struggles and you feel it’s a bit too strenuous. Our general instinct is to disagree by saying, “No, but…” Instead, say, “Yes, and I’ll take a small 10-minute break in between.” Every time you catch yourself saying “No, but…”, try to replace it with the phrase “Yes, and…” and test its efficacy for yourself. 

7. Explain what you need from them

In order for the conversation to go well, it is important to be clear about what you need from your parents. For example, do you need their advice or do you just want to share your feelings? Your parents will be able to respond to you better if they are aware of your needs.

8. Prepare for the worst-case scenario

It is possible that your parents disagree with you or outright deny your request. Have the conversation anyway. If you ask yourself “What’s the worst that can happen if I have this talk?” and you come to terms with, or accept that it may not change anything, then you will feel happy for having tried anyway. Your parents may not give in to your needs immediately, but if they’ve heard you out fully, then that’s a victory in itself. If at any point in time during the conversation you feel it isn’t going the way you hoped, there’s no harm in pressing pause and continuing it at a better-suited time. There’s always another day. You will get another chance.

9. Seek professional support 

There are several resources available that can help you navigate this challenging maze of communication. Digital mental health interventions like Wysa can serve as a good support system for you during your journey of opening up to your parents. You can use Wysa’s free AI chatbot to talk about your reservations, difficulties, worries and anxieties in an anonymous, judgement-free and clinically safe space. You can also use Wysa’s “emotional well-being” tool pack to reframe your negative thoughts , a technique often used in cognitive behavioural therapy. Wysa can be your guide and friend through the disquieting period and help you find the fortitude to honestly engage with your parents. If the conversation you have with your parents doesn’t go the way you’d have liked, Wysa will be there for you, hearing you out and providing support, comfort and strength. 

In situations where you feel that you’re really struggling and need urgent assistance, Wysa will help you get information about a crisis text line or a helpline that is geared towards your needs and age bracket. A therapist could also serve as a recourse (if a more robust and specific intervention is required). If you feel that you and your family could benefit from seeing a family therapist or undergoing individual therapy, you may find it helpful to talk to your parents about this option. 

Photo by Julia M Cameron 

Photo by Kindel Media 

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