Breakdown of parent-child communication

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This content item relates to “A broken childhood,” which appeared in the March 12 issue of the El Estoque print magazine.

FUHSD Board of Trustees President Hung Wei, a parent of MVHS alumni and Verdadera adviser, believes that lack of communication is a prevalent problem within many families. She strongly emphasizes the importance of family time. When her three children attended MVHS, they were constantly busy; the family was rarely able to sit down for dinner together. Instead, Wei left the meal on the table so her children could microwave the food at their convenience. Photo illustration by Sara Yang.

Her mother knew how frustrated she was — with the academic stress, the busy schedule, the disjointed communication with her father.

“Please don’t go do something stupid,” her mother had said. “We’ll get through it, I promise.”

Her friends were the ones who told her that she needed a break. They suggested that she spend a few days away from home, to just get away from it all.

So one day immediately before Winter Break of 2011, when her mother was working and her father was running errands, she grabbed a duffel bag of clothes and drove to a friend’s house. But her time there was anything but relaxing.

According to this female junior, who spoke to El Estoque on the condition that her name be withheld, she felt even more anxious once she had left; she spent a day and a half worrying and pacing her friend’s room, before heading home.

“I was afraid that the second I got home, there would be police officers at my house with search warrants, searching [houses]door to door,” the female junior said. “I was afraid that Cupertino would be like, being torn down because my parents wanted to find me that badly.”

To her relief, such a dramatic scene had not unfolded. As she pulled into the driveway around 2 p.m., her mother — who had been constantly glancing out the front window — ran and hugged her. But once her father came home, what ensued was, according to her, “the classic parent interrogation,” full of yelling and crying.

The female junior spent the rest of the day talking with her parents. She had initially left due to an extreme build-up of stress, and her final decision to leave the house stemmed from her father’s non-negotiable addition to her schedule: a two-week SAT class during break, five hours per weekday. Following her return home, they came to a compromise on the class, and the female junior says her parents now pressure her less in school.

“There’s still that kind of awkward space between us now, because they’re afraid to push me too hard,” she said. “I feel like I kind of made them feel like they did the wrong thing in trying to get me to do my best. In hindsight, I understand they were trying to help me do my best on the SATs, do my best in [sports]and school. But after a while, it was just taking away all the free time I had to just relax and breathe. ‘Cause as much as someone needs to be pushed, someone needs time to just relax and sit down and get a chance to be what they want to be.”

This female junior believes that her problems with her parents are not unique; she has heard several friends express the desire to run away from home — a course of action that she, from experience, does not recommend.

A busy lifestyle
The female junior noted that being a parent is a job. According to FUHSD Board of Trustees President Hung Wei, a Verdadera adviser and parent of MVHS alumni, that job can be a difficult one.

“Parents right now, they’re … in a hard spot. There are always so many wrongs they can do that they feel they can never do anything right,” Wei said. “I want the kids to know, the teenagers to know, their parents are just human beings. They’re not parents until they give birth to them. They don’t know how to be parents, they kind of learn on the way. So it’s not like they’re perfect.”

Although parents may err at times, Marcia Stein, a parent of an MVHS alumnus and author of “Strained Relations: Help for Struggling Parents of Troubled Teens” says they do love their children and are well-intentioned.

Stein commented that parents, especially those who choose to place their children in high-performing high schools and reside in the expensive accompanying neighborhoods, often work long hours to support their households. By the time they return home and see their children, parents are exhausted and sometimes need to just zone out.

“There are lots of distractions, we’re all very distracted. But sometimes you need to just sit with your kid and have a quiet time. And turn off the phone, turn off the gadgets, turn off everything — just be with your kid,” Stein said.

Stein added that parents must be prepared to speak with their children at any moment, because kids may not return to discuss an issue with their parents for a second time if they are not spoken to during the first.

Wei, speaking from personal experience, believes such a busy modern lifestyle limits the capacity for parents and children to interact with each other.

“From three o’clock when school’s out to eight o’clock, I was in the car shuffling [the kids], dropping this off, picking up, dropping off, picking up. And dinner was always on the table, whenever you’re ready to eat you could eat,” Wei said. “I was at PTA, I was very active in everything … I went to their games and you know, did all what the parent could do. But my kids still felt that I wasn’t communicating with them, which is true. I was there but wasn’t, you see the difference?”

According to Wei, families should prioritize spending time together. She said in particular that families ought to find the time to eat dinner together; the routine of doing so provides children with a safety net.

“Parents should step down and say, ‘We need family time because I care about you,’” Wei said.

Consequences of broken communication
Although the female junior’s parents no longer academically push her to the extent that they once did, she finds that the pressure to perform still lingers.

“The stress that [my parents]put on me has tattooed itself into my mind,” she said. “If one thing doesn’t go correctly, I feel like this huge tidal wave is going to knock everything else out along with it … Even if my parents tell me if it’s okay, I sit there and [think], ‘But it’s not.’”

Her difficulty in resolving her stress-related issues arises in part due to what she describes as her family’s “broken” communication; few words are exchanged between her and her father — the two have spent entire road trips to Los Angeles without uttering a single word. Her mother, with whom she has a better relationship, serves as an intermediary, conveying messages between the two. And, fearing what she calls his defensive reactions, the female junior refrains from voicing any issues she may have to her father, opting instead to let them “settle in the dust.”

“[It’s] kind of like the Charlie Brown parent-child relationship, where the children just hear the parents mumbling. I feel like that’s what the parents hear from us sometimes, it’s just like the ‘wah wah’ type noise.”

– anonymous female junior

Although she recognizes the benefits of communicating with parents, the female junior believes that parents often fail to comprehend when their children do choose to speak with them.

“[Parents] hear you, but they don’t actually listen to what you’re saying,” she said. “[It’s] kind of like the Charlie Brown parent-child relationship, where the children just hear the parents mumbling. I feel like that’s what the parents hear from us sometimes, it’s just like the ‘wah wah’ type noise.”

Mending communication
According to student advocate Richard Prinz, restoring or establishing healthy communication within families requires effort on both the parent and child’s parts. As he emphasizes in his parenting classes, Prinz suggests that parents should attempt to understand their children, and when insults are exchanged, should avoid reacting out of hurt. In turn, the child should converse with his parents instead of staying isolated in his bedroom, and treat them with consideration — perhaps put the Xbox down and help his mother with the groceries, Prinz suggested.

The female junior, too, recognizes the importance of communication but believes it difficult to achieve open discourse between a child and parent, especially when the two parties have not established a healthy relationship early on. An absence of trust, she thinks, underlies the breakdown of communication.

“There’s a huge wall between parents and children nowadays,” the female junior said. “Once it’s gone up, it just can’t be brought down … The parent feels it too.”

Nonetheless, the female junior still wants the ability to converse openly with her father.

“I’ve made it a personal goal this year to be able to stand up to him and say, ’You’re making me frustrated and stressed out … I know you’re trying to protect me … but I need someone to lean on sometimes, and sometimes that needs to be you — but I can’t do that when we have this issue between us,’” she said.

The female junior did at one point consider consulting a family therapist but decided against it; she felt that seeking professional help would hurt her parents, due to the implication that she was discontent with their familial situation. Even if she were to bring up the topic with her father, she believes that he would respond with anger and deny the need to see a therapist.

Stein believes reconciliation with parents becomes possible once the child has matured with the passage of time. She added that children in their twenties often repair relationships with their parents, citing a particular woman who only came to terms with her mother’s personality at the age of 40, and did not speak with her mother until then. According to Stein, restoring communication hinges upon the parent and child’s mutual acceptance of each other — “It’s not TV,” she said.

“You take some TV show about family … [like]the old TV shows and you see them on Nickelodeon … These old shows portrayed family life as it never ever was,” Stein said. “But people grow up looking at them and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s the way families are.’ Then they get disappointed when their family falls flat. They have unrealistic expectations of what families truly are.”

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About Author

Senior Akshay Agrawal is an El Estoque news editor and reporter. As webmaster, Akshay migrated and redesigned www.elestoque.org; he continues to manage the website's technical aspects while monitoring availability. Akshay's portfolio and blog can be viewed at www.debugmind.com.

  • gia

    I am a second year in college now, having been graduated from MV for 2 years this spring, I still feel that the line of communication is missing between my parents and myself. I coped by staying away from the house as much as possible all through high school, making up excuses to leave. Even though today, when I talk with my dad about academics, he says its okay to not get an A in all my college courses but I know that it isn’t okay, because of what he has said in the past. The communication isn’t there, but i have realized his actions mean well, he just doesn’t know how to convey it. Often our conversations end in yelling and tears.

    Bridging the communication gap just takes time. There isn’t much else that can be said but it takes time. Thanks for writing this. To all you out there, hang in there :)