Teen psychology expert and Managing Director of Motus Learning Christopher Shum reveals how you can use transactional analysis to have better interactions with your teen.
The Classic Teen/Parent Standoff:
Your teenager is throwing a tantrum. He really wants to go to a party but you know there will be alcohol there and you don’t want to place him in an environment where he might be peer pressured. When you tell him he can’t go, he roars “I hate you!” and slams the door. You feel a bit guilty and you don’t like fighting with him but you know it’s the right thing to do.
Nonetheless, the conversation remains on your mind for the evening:
You: You cannot go to that party.
Child: Why not!?
You: Because there is going to be alcohol at it. And I’m your mother and I said so.
Child: Yeah but I won’t drink at it. Please, you don’t understand. Everyone will be talking about it and I will be the only one not going.
You: I don’t care. It’s done. You’re not going.
Child: Well I’m going to drink at the next party I go to anyway and I’m not going to tell you!
You: Well if that’s the case, I’m never going to let you leave the house!
Child: You are the worst. I hate you!
[Slams the door]
Sound familiar? This is a problem that most parents will face. And the solution also applies to everyday interactions for anyone. Transactional analysis is a psychological theory that gives people a framework to understand how they can better carry out interactions.
Transactional Analysis: What is it?
Transactional analysis states that there are three ways we can interact with other people:
1) Child Mode
2) Parent Mode
3) Adult Mode
The child mode involves being told how something is. You are wrong and the other person is right so you learn from them. Children younger than eight years old will take this position when listening to their parents as they are learning more about the world. If children grow up with this type of interaction, they become the person who tries to please everyone and is not very assertive.
The parent mode occurs when you are telling someone else what is correct. You are right and they are wrong. Parents will take this form when they are explaining social norms to their children. If people grow up with this form of interaction, as many do, they will value being right more than the interaction itself.
Now, these two forms are very adaptive when there is a clear relationship between a parent and child. However, it can develop into a problem when children get older and they begin to see the world in a different way. This creates a disagreement, which then creates an arena where negative emotions can flourish. It is this arena that showcases people with weak and strong social skills.
Unfortunately, society today promotes this. I once saw a conservative rally in the UK where a bystander raised the point that some of the information that their party share skews statistics. The panel then tore the man to shreds and celebrated afterwards as if they just won free cinema tickets in a raffle.
The problem here is that these politicians misunderstand what a successful interaction is. As they were bred into their private schools, they were educated on the importance of debating and this created a misinterpretation of a successful interaction. To them, ‘if I can present more valid points than the other person, then I win this interaction’, but that shouldn’t be the outcome of an interaction.
Instead, a successful interaction is when you connect with the other person and learn something new. Going for the parent view makes you disliked if you win and annoyed if you lose. You don’t learn anything and you don’t enjoy the conversation. So how can we ensure that both you and your child interact without the downfall of your mental health? The adult mode.
The Adult Mode:
The adult mode takes the rational approach of realising that when dealing with opinions, both people can be right. However, it still shows assertiveness whereby it validates the other person’s viewpoint, while still explaining your own perspective.
Hence, the adult mode states that you are right but I am also right. The adult form makes interactions beneficial to you and it allows you to enjoy them more. In order to achieve this, you need to realise that not everyone perceives the world the same as you.
As we grow up, we are exposed to different forms of learning. For example, a parent is made to believe that they are the primary caregivers over their child, so they decide the rules. Their developed brain helps them plan for the future of their child.
However, the teenager and their underdeveloped brain thinks in the present and is obsessed with immediate gratification with no consequences. Therefore, it’s not that the teenager disagrees with your viewpoint - he just doesn’t understand it. So when the party comes up, there is a clash of perspectives.
In the parent's eyes, their teen knows that there is a lot that can go wrong at the party and they are just being difficult. To the teen, there are no negative consequences and the parent is just being difficult. This combined with the two parent modes of communication results in the standoff.
However, the truth is that on some topics, there is no right and wrong. There can only be opinions. So it is more important to acknowledge someone else’s opinion, because it allows you to gain more information on the subject topic.
I recently experienced this situation when I came across two people arguing over the need for religion. One firm believer of science said to the religious follower that her viewpoint was wrong. He was trying to explain that the scientific method is our best way to accurately measure how the world works and there is no scientific evidence of a God and the stories of the bible are completely fabricated. This made anything the religious follower said invalid.
However, what she was saying was that religion was important because it gave people hope, which improved their mental health because they had something to turn to when they felt situations were out of their control. While both their points were important and valid, they were blinded by being right (the parent mode) and consequently, this only led to an unsuccessful interaction.
However, this interaction could be successful and both parties could gain from the interaction. They chose to stay in the realm of "you are wrong and I am right" rather than delving into each of their perspectives of the importance of scientific evidence, and the importance of how religion can benefit individuals. If they had done this, they could both develop their understanding of the topic and they could appreciate each other. This results in them both coming away with positive emotions, and transactional analysis can help them to achieve this.
Transactional Analysis in Play:
The same situation applies to parents. As children grow up, they begin developing their own interpretation of the world. And while the parent would have experienced similar aspects of development such as relationships, peer pressure, and fitting it, they have no experience of growing up with social media and technology, for example.
Consequently, when your teenager disagrees with you, they do have a valid point saying you don’t understand. However, it is again important to acknowledge that they are not wrong and you are not right. But rather, this is what you think is best and you have taken their opinion into account.
However, the differing and often more difficult factor here is that because you are the parent, you are still the decision-maker. But regardless, acknowledging what they are saying will still have a positive long term impact on your relationship with your child. Let’s show you how to correct the original interaction using transactional analysis:
You: I’m sorry but you cannot go to that party.
Child: Why not!?
You: Because there is going to be alcohol at it.
Child: Yeah but I won’t drink any of it. Please, you don’t understand. Everyone will be talking about it and I will be the only one not going.
You: I know you would not drink but I’m not putting you in a situation where someone might force you to take some. I know it’s difficult because everyone will be talking about it but give it a few days and then it will be over. And there will be plenty more parties.
Child: Well I’m going to drink at the next party I go to anyway and I’m not going to tell you.
You: Well that is your decision but if you do, remember that you will lose my trust.
Child: You are the worst.
You: I know I might seem like I’m out to get you but I’m only doing this because I care. How about you invite one of your friends over tomorrow and they can update you on what happened at the party?
Child: Yeah, I’ll see.
This parent truly listens to her child and consequently, his opinions are valued. The mother does not try to act like she knows everything. She acknowledges that she does not know everything that is going on but that it must be difficult and she compromises. She is assertive yet understanding.
This is good parenting, this is good social skills, and this is successfully taking care of the mental health of yourself and others. Give it a try the next time you disagree with someone.
For more information, you can visit motuslearning.com, an organization set up to prepare kids for kids for life using emotional intelligence tools.