“I didn’t do it!”
It happens in a split second without any conscious thought as part of your brain’s natural defense system, like being thrown a hot potato and finding the fastest way to get rid of it before it burns you.
Defensiveness is one of four documented toxic communication styles; coping strategies triggered by fear and insecurity or when you feel attacked, threatened or unskilled to participate. Defensiveness shows up when taking responsibility for anything might make you look bad or feel ashamed, so you get angry as your brain enters the fear, fight or flight response pattern.
“You’re the one who left the food on the counter!”
Blaming is a cousin of defensiveness that throws responsibility on someone or something other than you to protect yourself from feeling vulnerable or unsafe. Blaming statements almost always begin with ‘YOU’.
- Validate feelings
- Ask questions to better understand what your teen heard (words and tone)
- Encourage them to use ‘I want…’ or ‘I need…’ statements to create a more constructive conversation
- Try rephrasing what you said and check how it was heard so you have a different experience next time
*Saying, “Well that’s not what I said” is defensiveness. Be open to being part of the change.
“What’s wrong with you?!”
Criticism is used to attack the character of another person like spitting back with venom. A complaint, however, addresses specific behaviour without becoming personal. Critical communications ‘cut people down to size’ by pointing out faults or constantly bringing up past ‘failures’ (I hate that word so I use quotes, but you know what I mean).
Sarcasm is the cousin of criticism which became widely accepted through the character Chandler from F*R*I*E*N*D*S in the late 1990s. It’s still the pervasive and acceptable, toxic communication style in corporate and family culture today. Why? Because it’s funny. Sort of.
“I’m not great at the advice. Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?”
Sarcasm wraps statements you might not otherwise say – hurtful, truthful, vulnerable, etc., in humour so you feel more powerful and less at risk and the listener has less recourse. It shows up when you feel unsafe saying what you’re really feeling or thinking, or asking for what you need.
Isn’t humor a good thing?
Yes! Humor, at its best, is used to bring amusement and joy, not to have the listener feel like they just got slimed or even confused about what they just heard while the speaker is having a laugh at their expense. Separating humor and critical communications is the healthiest way.
- Find the request, wish or need behind the criticism
- Note what feelings come up just before criticism is used to understand the trigger, including holding a right/wrong/fault/blame belief system with no room to learn, correct and be human
- What is the communication that feels uncomfortable to make, so it’s getting cloaked in backhanded humor?
- How might humor be used for good?
- Use the formula “I feel X about Y. What I want/need is Z” to make future requests
“You’re so stupid!”
Contempt is treating others with disrespect and ridicule by believing they’re less or lower than you. This has proven to be the most damaging of the toxic styles as it destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health. Contempt is the greatest indicator of relationship failure and is difficult to work through.
- Ask yourself what you’re really upset about (journaling is very helpful to dig down)
- Seek constructive ways to work through those emotions like physical activity, journaling, counseling, therapy rather than turning those feelings toward others
- Check the stories you have about that person that get the way of seeing them as equal
- Use the formula “I feel X about Y” to express your feelings and remain respectful
- Find one small thing about the other person you relate to or something they do well to humanize them and build compassion
“Whatever. I’m out.”
Stonewalling is a favorite of teens as a way to make their parents suffer. The silent stare or ‘talk to the hand’ posture that signals a refusal to engage in the conversation, or at least ends it, wins every time. By withdrawing or shutting down, your teen keeps the upper hand (feels safe) and keeps you pursuing them for more.
Stonewalling at a conscious level is manipulative, like ghosting over text. Unconsciously, it’s a way of coping in tough situations when you don’t feel skilled to participate or feel flooded; emotionally and mentally overwhelmed.
- Take a time out if you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed (flooded) and agree to reconvene in a reasonable time
- During your time out, calm and soothe your nervous system with slow breathing, walking, meditation/prayer, listening to music, reading, etc.
- Use The Feeling Wheel by Dr. Gloria Wilcox to help develop an emotional vocabulary and support yourself to express what you feel in tough conversations
- Be curious about your fears or underlying beliefs that have you avoid or check out of conversations
The conversation stops in its tracks with no resolution.
These toxic forms of communication, known as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, support you to feel safe by either removing the focus or wrongdoing or removing you from the conversation all together. If your teen constantly refuses to engage (more like stonewalling), they may not know how to express what’s going on for them, so they shut you out.
Emotionally safety is low, and fear rises to the point of being on guard at all times.
In my years of relationship work, feeling attacked or threatened show up in relationships where behaviours/results are clearly labeled as right or wrong, good or bad. Any situation that doesn’t go well requires someone be at fault and subject to blame/shame.
What’s worse? They’re all related and combine quickly to escalate conflict.
“Sarcasm got carried away one night, so Defensiveness came out of her room to try and tone him down. Then Blaming came upstairs to take on Sarcasm and Criticism came out of his room to take down Defensiveness. It escalated as the neighbour Contempt showed up and got even louder until Stonewalling walked in and shut the whole thing down.”
Modelling healthy communication for your teen is critical to building respectful relationships that last: using ‘I’ statements, being curious about your thoughts and feelings behind your words and being open to creating change.
Remember though, you’re both human and they’re going to sneak in from time to time.
If these horsemen are trampling on your relationship with your teen and you’d like a better understanding of how to remove them, this is the perfect opportunity! After years of working with parents and teens and seeing the same painful disconnects, I compiled a complete guide covering the nine most common breakdowns with step-by-step instructions, videos and examples to make basic communication simple again.
Click below to start lowering your stress!!