It’s normal for your relationship with your parents or guardians to change over time, especially once you become a young adult and start to stake out your own individual preferences. But this process of asserting yourself often leads to conflict. It can be hard for parental figures to accept that your wishes and desires are different from theirs.

If you’re struggling to assert boundaries, express your needs (including dissatisfaction with school), or start difficult conversations with your parents, the principles of Nonviolent Communication can be really helpful.

What is Nonviolent Communication?

The concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. It’s based on the idea that human behaviour is rooted in attempts to meet our most fundamental needs. When this fails, we often resort to violent or harmful actions out of sheer frustration.

This frustration can be seen in many types of communication, but it’s especially noticeable between young people and their parents. How many times have you felt like your father or mother just didn’t understand you? The thing is, they often feel the same way: that you don’t “get” where they’re coming from.

Bridging this gap is what Nonviolent Communication is all about.

The 4 Stages of Effective Communication

Nonviolent Communication aims to help people identify their own needs, the needs of the other party, and needs shared by both. You and your parents want what’s best for you; it’s just that you’re approaching the problem from different angles. NVC can help you work together.

Nonviolent communication consists of four basic steps:

  1. Observe facts about the world. Start by talking to the other person about clearly defined facts that you can both agree on.
  2. Describe your emotions. To communicate effectively, you need to understand how you feel about the facts you’ve agreed on. You aren’t trying to argue, you’re trying to convey your emotional state.
  3. Identify the needs and desires of the other person. Use empathy to understand the underlying reasons for the other person’s perspective and behaviours. Try to be aware of your own needs and desires as well.
  4. Propose a course of action. In this step, you suggest a way forward or some kind of compromise so both you and the person you’re talking to get what they want.

This system is extremely useful because it gives you a structure to work through when you are feeling upset, angry, or frustrated. As someone who used to have a short temper when I was younger, I found that I would often yell or argue because I wasn’t feeling heard. When I tried to communicate how I felt, I didn’t have the right words or structure to express myself, which resulted in a lot of slammed doors. Over time, though, I learned that if I could communicate more effectively, I didn’t feel as angry or frustrated. When you’re able to lay out what you feel and why, it’s much easier to stay calm and reasonable.

A key principle of this approach is that you’re not trying to “win” an argument. Instead, you’re trying to understand the other person’s perspective so you can come to a solution which works for both of you.

Assert your needs to your parents using nonviolent communication

Using NVC in practice

Let’s look at three examples of how young people could use this method to communicate with their parents over typical disagreements.

Example 1: Disagreements over education and future prospects

Emma is seventeen and preparing to apply for universities. She has always loved reading, and she wants to study English literature. But her parents think that’s impractical. They want her to study something more concrete, like business or economics. How can she address this with them?

This situation is difficult because Emma knows she will have to spend the next three years studying whatever subject she chooses. And she knows she’s most interested in English and would love to study that. But her parents are concerned about her job prospects, and whether her degree will set her up well for her future.

A bad way to communicate about this would be for Emma to get angry and tell her parents she doesn’t care what they think. Phrases like “You don’t understand me” or “You want to control everything I do,” even if they are true, are not an effective way for Emma to get what she wants.

Instead, Emma can use the framework we described:

  1. Observe facts: “You know that I’ve always loved to read. Books have been a big part of my life for a long time.”
  2. Describe emotions: “When I think about studying English, I feel excited and hopeful for the future. When I think about studying something else, I feel restless and uninspired.”
  3. Acknowledge her parents’ feelings: “I understand that you’re worried about my future and you want me to be able to get a good job at the end of my studies.”
  4. Propose a compromise: “What if I studied English as my major, but took some classes in business as well? That way, I could feel inspired by my studies but also build up skills for future jobs.”

Example 2: Poor boundaries around personal relationships

Jennifer is eighteen and has been dating her boyfriend for several months. Her father keeps asking her intrusive and inappropriate questions about her love life and the physical status of her relationship. She finds this overbearing and shaming.

Parents are not always comfortable when their children begin to date or look for romantic relationships. Jennifer’s father may think she is too young to be pursuing relationships, or that her partner is a poor choice. This is upsetting for Jennifer, who considers herself an adult and capable of making her own decisions about her partners.

A bad way to communicate about this would be for Jennifer to lay down an ultimatum, like “If you don’t stop interfering in my love life, I’ll move out of your house and go and live with my boyfriend.” There may indeed come a time when she needs to move out in order to have her freedom. But before taking that drastic step, she can try to communicate with her father:

  1. Observe facts: “You’ve been asking a lot of questions about my boyfriend recently.”
  2. Describe emotions: “When you ask probing questions, I feel uncomfortable, like I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions.”
  3. Identify needs: “I understand that you have a need to keep me safe. My need here is to learn for myself what I want in a relationship.”
  4. Propose action: “I would like you to stop asking me so many questions about him, and in return I promise I will let you know if I need help or advice about him.”
Assert your needs to your parents using nonviolent communication

Example 3: Differing values about technology

Sam is sixteen and he uses his phone all the time to stay in touch with friends. His mother thinks he spends too much time on his phone and he should be going outside instead. Whenever she gets upset with him, she takes away his phone. Then he’s left with no way to communicate with the important people in his life.

Technology is one of those subjects that causes issues because different generations see it so differently. For Sam, his phone is a basic essential for texting with his friends, looking up important information, and managing his life. For his mother, his phone is a shallow distraction which prevents him from focusing on what is really important.

A bad way for Sam to communicate his frustrations would be to invoke the past, like “You always do this” or to invoke other people, like “None of my friends’ parents do this to them.” Both of these will only make his mother defensive, and therefore less likely to compromise with him.

For the best chance of finding a compromise, Sam can try this:

  1. Observe facts: “I know I use my phone a lot. And I know you don’t like how much time I spend on it, and you think taking it away will make me more receptive.”
  2. Describe emotions: “But I use my phone to talk to my friends. When I can’t contact them, I feel isolated and alone. I feel like I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
  3. Identify needs: “I see you want me to be more present during family time, and not to be distracted by my phone.”
  4. Propose action: “If you let me keep my phone, I’ll agree to not use it during dinner. Dinner time can be our time to talk as a family. And then after dinner, I can contact my friends.”

Communication takes practice

Communication between teenagers and parents can be particularly difficult because of power imbalances. If you are under eighteen, or if you are financially dependent on your parents, or if you live in their house, then they have a lot more power to compel you to act in certain ways.

If you struggle to communicate and to make your parents see your point of view, don’t beat yourself up emotionally. It is objectively hard to make yourself heard, and it takes practice to stay calm and stand your ground in a disagreement. Growing pains like this are natural and inevitable as you assert your independence and become an adult.

As you finish reading this article, take a moment to reflect on a frequent disagreement with your parents that would allow you to practise NVC.  With this method, you might be able to reach a compromise that meets everyone’s needs.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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