Sometimes not saying anything says everything!

In this series, we are diving into decoding your tw/een’s communication style. Last week we explored what aggressive communication looks like and what you can do to help foster more respectful dialogue. 

This week we are going to go to the other end of the spectrum to discuss passive communication styles. 

While you may not see passive communication as much in the home (as home tends to be where teens feel most emboldened to let tempers flare), passive communication is really important to address because it is often a sign your teen or tween is feeling poorly about themselves. 

You will likely observe them using this communication style more with their friends and peers, or with strangers. 

If you are a teacher, you may see it in the classroom and it is one sign that a tw/een is struggling with their self-worth and could use a boost.

Read on below to learn why passive communication styles develop and what you can do to help your tw/een feel more confident expressing themselves.

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The first thing to know is that communication styles we all use are learned and adapted due to the environment we grew up in. 

If we witnessed that a parent didn’t feel confident speaking up, we may learn, too, that it is not OK to speak up ourselves. 

Though occasionally, if we see a communication pattern that is hurtful (for example one parent that is aggressive towards another parent), we may mimic the more aggressive style in the hopes of not becoming a target of the aggression ourselves. 

While we don’t always stick to the same communication style (as the way we communicate will depend on who we are with and where we are), once our general communication blueprints are formed, it is challenging to use new methods, even when we want to. 

This is especially true for those who use passive communication tactics. As much as they want to speak up and be more assertive, they are held back. Here’s why:

Passive Communication occurs when someone feels worried about speaking up or asserting themselves. They may have learned that stating their needs or feelings was unwelcome, or invalid either by being met with shame, ridicule, anger and aggression or by being made to feel that their emotions weren’t real or that they didn’t matter. 

Some passive communicators have also have heard “rules” like it is “unladylike, impolite, or rude” to be clear and direct. This could be a cultural thing, or a family expectation that was passed down. 

Without realizing it, old and outdated parenting beliefs like “children should be seen and not heard” or “boys don’t cry” or even something simple like saying “you’re OK” when they start to cry, can lead someone to believe they aren’t allowed to express themselves the way that feels natural to them. 

As a result, passive communicators often ignore their perspectives, needs, and feelings in order to keep the peace, to fit in, to escape wrath, or to avoid being shut down. 

If they do speak up, you may hear them use disclaimers like “this is dumb, but…” or “Sorry, I’m just wondering…” before they speak. 

Passive communication can also sound like:

“I know it’s stupid to be sad about the ride to the dance, just forget about it”

“I realize I am dumb and needy and I’m taking up your time. I was hoping to talk to you, but literally forget about it. LOL.”

“No really, it’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry about it. We’re still friends I was just being dumb”

“Wanna hang out? JK. LOLLLL. No worries if you don’t want to. No big deal.”

In the home, you may start to notice passive communication during disagreements. It can sound or look like this: 

“It’s all my fault”

“What is wrong with me. I’m so stupid”

“I hate myself”

“Sorry sorry I’m so sorry. Do you forgive me? Is everything OK? “

“I’m such a screw up. I make everyone mad at me”

“Why do I cause all these family fights?”

Or simply: Not saying anything, just listening, agreeing and exiting. 

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No doubt you want your tw/een to feel more confident, and you want them to speak up so you know what is really going on for them so you can better support their needs! You definitely don’t want them believing they are the reason behind all the family fights. So what do you do?

Like for all other communication strategies, you need to show your kid how to talk assertively. This means practicing what you preach. Kids learn first and foremost by observing you. They will pick up on the strategies you use most – when speaking with others and when speaking with them. If you speak up for yourself and communicate your needs, and make space for your emotions, they learn that it is also ok to do so themselves. 

You may also want to ensure that you validate their emotions and let them know it is OK to express themselves. Give them space to explore their feelings without trying to shut them down or fix them. Offer to listen rather than offer strategies and solutions. 

It is also helpful to purposely ask your tw/een what they would like to say. Make a point during every conversation (either between the two of you, or conversations in larger groups) to give them space to speak up. Say, “I haven’t heard yet how YOU feel about this? What do YOU need?” or “I’m really curious about how this is affecting you. What are your thoughts” or “Hey everyone, we haven’t heard from Ashley yet in this conversation. Ashley, what would you like to add?”

Over time, they will learn that their voice matters and will feel more comfortable speaking up even when not prompted.