Communication with Adolescents


This paper defines the meaning and functions of communication and focuses on parents’ dilemmas that appear when adults lose their evident impact on an adolescent.

The term communication originally referred to the act of doing something together and the act of sharing. However, due to the model which was introduced by Shannon in the 50s, nowadays the term is applied to information transmission. Therefore a generally approved definition of communication is the transmission of contents from one person to another.

During the process of growing up, the amount of information we are faced with gradually increases. At the same time the process of receiving information (reception of various pieces of information, knowledge, contents etc.) becomes more and more target-oriented. The absorption of knowledge in early infancy is usually a non-intentional process which is not target-oriented. But at a later stage, adolescents receive a growing number of messages from their parents, which influence their behaviour, their way of thinking and their emotions.   

Contemporary views on interpersonal communication reveal that information or message transmission function is only one of the functions of interpersonal communication. The so-called grooming function and function of social reality construction are of higher importance to a human being. Groups of adolescents exercise communicative function, but in addition to that, they also offer grooming and help adolescents to form basic truths and provide them with essential guidelines. Their impact on an adolescent is larger than the impact of the world of adults. While their children are in the process of growing up, parents tend to use communicative function at the expense of the other two functions. By doing that, they are constantly losing their influence.


Introduction basic communication models

What is communication? The verb to communicate (Latin: communicare) originally referred to the act of doing something together and the act of sharing (Verbinc, 1968, 362). It was not until the 17th century (Wolton, 2005) that communication referred to announcement and dissemination, which was linked to the development of trade in books and later to the development of the press. This distribution occurred in order to unite information, but later on with a growing number of documents and amount of information, the meanings of both terms started to diverge. Definitions of communication in psychological theories which try to explain personal interaction used to be (and are still) much varied. In general there are two groups of definitions: early models (linear and circular communication models) and contemporary models (models of exchange).

If we asked random passers-by what communication is, the most frequent answer would definitely be an exchange of messages between individuals. This can be associated with so-called linear models. They include the majority of general and popular definitions. According to Hartley (1993, 14) they are based on a very influential communication model from 1948 by Claude E. Shannon. The majority of communication definitions presume that communication order can be defined. This is usually presented in a scheme: 


Figure 1: Shannon’s communication model. (Shannon, 1948, 2)



Shannon’s communication model is probably the most influential and commonly used model which describes communication in general, as well as interactions within the process. However, their original scheme was not referring to interpersonal communication at all, but rather to communication technology (the telephone)! This was originally a mathematical model intended for solving technical problems in exactly defined circumstances (Underwood, 2003). Shannon’s communication model was still very much present in the early models of exchange which were given their name by Dimbleby and Burton (1995, 26).   

The principle of linear form was succeeded by a so-called circular model of communication by Osgood-Schramm (Underwood, 2003), which presumes that it would be wrong to think that communication has a start and an end. In fact, it is a continuous process. Communication in circular models is a two-way process (Hartley, 1993, 9) because it is connected to simultaneous interpersonal reception and simultaneous interpersonal exchange of messages.  This is also true of contemporary so-called process models of communication, for example: “an expanded model of interpersonal interaction” by Hargie and Marshall (1991) and “a model of exchange” by Dimbleby and Burton (1995) in which they presume that in communication each person always has a double function; a function of a sender and (simultaneously) a function of a receiver.

The “model of interpersonal communication process” set by the Johnson brothers (1997, 142) seems currently to be the most elaborated one. Apart from already known elements, it also includes the sender’s thoughts and emotions, the way in which the sender decided to send the message and it stresses the importance of the interpretation of its meaning. In addition, the Johnson brothers (1997, 142) mark each element disturbing communication as a noise whereas the linear models of communication located noises mainly in the channel. The noises can also appear in the sender (for example adolescent’s point of view, his referential framework and appropriate ways of expression etc.) or in the receiver (for example adult’s point of view, origin, experience which influence the process of decoding).


Critical view on the model theories through a prism of communication functions among children and adults


Since Shannon’s communication model is really limited to technical ways of communication (which are also rather obsolete regarding the development of contemporary technology), it would be probably more appropriate to call it information or message transmission model.  It would be very difficult to define models which do not agree with simultaneous two-way process within communication as communication models. When messages are transmitted only in one way (as shown in linear models) a term message transmission would be more appropriate than communication. Thus, when we leave a message on a table for someone else or when we use TV screens, answering machines, text messages, letters, etc., we do not communicate but we are transmitting a message.


But when we talk about one-way communication we are thinking about verbal communication which is (mainly) one-way from a sender to a receiver.  And this is a way in which communication processes between an adolescent and an adult usually develop. Thus, it is not about the richness of a two-way non-verbal communication, which is generally well recognised by adults (for example, “He has a very sad expression”, “he doesn’t know anything else but how to be annoying”, “he is always rolling his eyes”, “she locks herself in her room and shows us she is offended”, “her attitude towards food shows us something is wrong” etc.).


Adolescents receive much more one-way communication, such as guiding, giving information, teaching, pointing out mistakes, criticising, warning etc., than younger children. This one-way communication is mostly intended to transmit messages since the message from an adult to an adolescent wants to influence his behaviour, mode of thinking, and his emotions in a desired way.


This kind of communication is not set for common relationship building (there is a presumption that this kind of relationship already exists), neither is it set for equal exchange and therefore modification of contrasting views (this kind of communication is seen as more appropriate for a world of adults for which an adolescent is not yet ready according to adults), neither is it intended for expressing affection (since adolescents often decline expression of affection in a way in which it was expressed when they were younger).


We can presume that especially the educational environment (basic beliefs about the purpose of education) does not promote these communication functions. Teachers usually do not try to establish good relations with adolescents or they do not support equal exchange of views. Furthermore, they do not promote critical thinking in educational institutions in a sufficient way or they do not use it in all possible ways defined by Rupnik Vec and Kompare (2006, 28–46). What adults want is that adolescents comply with their own expectations.


However, it is true that we cannot shrink the entire scale of interpersonal communication in a relationship between an adult and an adolescent to an act of influencing adolescent’s behaviour, way of thinking and emotions towards a desired orientation. In an educational environment (for example at knowledge tests) and especially at home, an adolescent also experiences many other forms of communication which can be described as qualitative and promoting relationship building (for example Vec, 2005).


However, if we consider the most frequently used form of communication we can see that adults communicate in an inappropriate way so that an adolescent perceives communication as an interrogation and accusation (Gordon, 1991), as non-equal and non-reflective communication (Speck, 1990), as a power contest within a relationship (Mandič, 1998) or as an unintentional, senseless form of communication (Dillon, 1991) etc.  Greene and Burleson (2003) and Hargie (1991) believe that the solution lies in a study of communication skills functions and communication sources.


E. L. and R. E. Hartley have already described communication as a basic social process in 1952. They said that it would be difficult not to stress the importance of communication in studying social processes (1952, 16). Communication is used by one individual to influence another being, at the same time under his or her influence and an actual holder of a social process. This makes interaction possible.


Through communication people become and remain social beings. Without it we could not establish connections, and implement cooperation or better manage the physical world. P. Hartley (1993, 9) also states that interpersonal communication is not just a simple exchange of messages, but it is crucial for their creation and for an exchange of meanings. Communication is not only informing others about external and inner circumstances nor is it only a way of directing other peoples’ behaviour. It is also important for establishing a contact according to Dahlgren Sandbergova and Liliedahlova (2008, 10). Older models do not clearly show its interdependent interactivity either. Anderson and Marinac (2007, 307) emphasise interactivity in communication. They believe that parents use their communication style to influence their children’s communication style and vice versa. Children’s reactions influence their parents’ communication style.


In a nutshell, communication is necessarily a two-way continuous process based on simultaneous interpersonal perception.  It is a simultaneous exchange of messages or symbols (the sender is simultaneously a receiver and vice versa), which are connected by a certain meaning (semantic communication function) and it also means creation and exchange of meanings (social reality) and a way of establishing and preserving interpersonal relations (social cultivation). These two functions (social cultivation and structural function) are called primal communication functions by the author of this paper because of their importance in human life in general (as it is described below).


Primal communication functions

Verbal communication as a supplement for social grooming (establishment of a contact)


Human beings were primarily using non-verbal communication during their ontogenetic and phylogenetic development and then gradually started to use voices and more and more sophisticated verbal messages in order to communicate with others. In 1993, I. M. Dunbar published an interesting theory in which he linked the development of language to the development of the size of groups and the size of the neocortex. A group of primates that is limited in size has a limited possibility of processing of information on social relations established between the members of the group. 


According to Dunbar (1993, 681), a generally approved theory says that primates maintain their group cohesion through a so-called social grooming (touching, pampering, scratching each others fur coat etc). Social grooming is therefore used to establish and maintain relationship structures (friendships, coalitions) and thus functions as a linking process of a group.  During the observation of monkeys it was noticed that the time spent on social grooming depends on the size of the group.


However, social grooming is not so important for the entire group as it is for “friendships”, primary networks or coalition groups, as they are called by Dunbar (1993, 682). An individual perceives them as some kind of palliatives against disturbing elements, which grow in number together with the size of a group. Therefore, the amount of time spent on social grooming increases together with the size of a group.  Dunbar believes that human beings gradually started to live in bigger groups because it increased their chances of survival and at the same time, it meant a higher quality or easier life.  


The author concludes in a rather speculative way that, because of the growing number of members in a group, human beings had to invent a faster way which would enable them to groom simultaneously with a larger number of individuals and which would also enable them to do other things at the same time. Language fulfils the basic requirement since it functions faster than physical grooming and includes many participants. An individual using this kind of social grooming can do other things at the same time and it can also be used from a certain distance. Dunbar says (1993, 689) that a language is too often perceived as a means for a transmission of information instead of part of the function of social connections. 


It is also interesting that transactional theory (Stewart and Joines, 1991, 74) talks about the human need for physical and mental stimulus (stimulus-hunger) and about the need for attention, recognition (recognition-hunger). According to the theory of E. Bern (1980, 1989) a stroke is a unit of recognition of each signal used by one person in order to signify to another person that she was noticed; or each process used by one person to confirm and inform another person that she is aware of her presence and reacts upon that.


People show each other affection in a physical way with a touch or in a symbolical verbal or non-verbal way. E. Berne (1980, 11) says that it is the most significant confirmation of one’s presence, something with what we could mark the closeness in general. This closeness comprises various forms. In this sense, even “negative confirmations” are better than no confirmation at all, by which we are expressing to someone that he does not exist for us. Berne (1980, 11) says that “Some people literally pat and caress him, while other pinch him or tap with their finger tips.


All these forms of touching also have verbal analogies so that it is possible to predict how a person treats a child only by observing their communication. In a broader sense a mark of ‘existence confirmation’ in everyday life can be used for each activity that involves a confirmation of someone’s existence.” According to this theory, transaction or communication process therefore fulfils basic human needs (for physical or mental stimuli, for contacts and attention or for confirmation by the others).


As already mentioned, the original meaning of the term communication did not stand for speaking, for informing or talking but for carrying out something together, sharing something with someone, and that is closer to the act of deepening a relationship or establishing a contact (Wilmot, 1995, 90). The author tries to show the connection between a relationship and communication in an explicit way by calling the phenomenon “relational communication”. Erchul and co. (2007, 112) share a similar opinion and say that relational communication encompasses a process, various messages from both sides and of a dynamic nature. A relationship is linked to a process and history in such a way that it always maintains its own past, present and future while constantly changing.


Apart from knowledge and information, the so-called social truths can also be transmitted with the help of language from generation to generation. However, what is of special importance is the fact that it is being transmitted as a good principle of surviving: communication represents a basic way of ensuring social reality; thus being a process, it represents a means of transmission of human social aspects. In this regard, we could say that communication is a social gene of humanity. In defining its meaning, just as with human genes, content is not the only thing that matters; transmission itself is also very important.


Communication in a function of creating (social) reality or a structural function of communication


Festinger (1950, 272) supposed that there is a so-called continuum, which he referred to as a “scale of degree of physical reality”. The situation at one end of the continuum is entirely dependent on physical reality for example we can check if glass is fragile and breakable in a simple way by taking a hammer and hitting it. According to Festinger physical reality is something that can be directly checked in an empirical way, since an individual trusts in his own opinion rather than relying on the others, in all examples where the validity of an opinion mainly leans on physical reality.


On the other end of continuum of the scale, the dependency of physical reality is insignificant or almost non-existing. Festinger’s example, “A man who is waiting for national election results feels that, if a defeated person had won, things would be in many regards much better then they are”.1950, 272). Therefore, when there is a lack of starting points needed for orientation in physical reality, people feel in this “empty space” by looking for other peoples’ opinion. Namely, during the major part of our lifetime we do not check by ourselves whether something is true or not. (We do not empirically check if the law of gravity is true also in our case by jumping off a skyscraper, neither check by ourselves if the earth is round, neither whether it makes sense to study, respect elderly people, have children, etc.)


If we were checking and trying all that out, it would not only be a waste of time and energy, but also entirely absurd. In these kinds of examples other peoples’ opinions give us what we would get from physical reality. For example, after a school test, most adolescents start to check with others whether the test was in fact difficult or not. If any of them feels that the test was extremely difficult while his colleagues found it easy, there is a big possibility that the adolescent would accept their opinion as an objective fact (as a social reality) and start looking for the reasons why was he the only one who found the test difficult. Something is thus perceived as a reality only when we get confirmation from the others.


We could use Festinger’s opinion (1950, 272, 273), “An opinion, a belief or a point of view is ‘real’, ‘valid’ and ‘correct’ if grounded in similar beliefs, opinions and viewpoints of a group of people”. In order to think that one’s belief is true, one needs confirmation only from his/her reference group and not from everybody. He would find a person who does not share his opinion inconvenient for comparison. This is where the author recognised that he is also in a kind of a circle since on one hand an individual chooses a reference group which would make him believe that his own impression is true and with which he would exchange his opinion and viewpoints and on the other hand he has a tendency to leave those groups which do not support his belief.


Later on, authors such as Berger and Luckmann (1988[1], 141), Collin (1997, 2, 3) also closely linked communication with the creation, formation maintenance and modification of social reality. Semin and Fiedler (1992, 2) said that “language … can structure our present by bringing our past in front of us and at the same time it equips a medium through which the bridges towards our future will be built”. So if communication represents a way in which our social reality is co-created (which he means the co-creation of cornerstones and viewpoints for orientation) then communication is actually a means to structure our world. Therefore, this is one of the primal functions of communication.


Modification of communication functions and influence on an adolescent


Previous thoughts about primary communication functions are of course not in contradiction with the fact that communication is a means of information and message transmission. They only point to different communication functions. Since the majority of past communication studies focused on its semantic function and goal oriented function, the focus should now be on so-called primary communication functions. If we want to understand the meaning of interpersonal communication with adolescents, while increasing the influence on them, it is important to understand the meaning of various communication functions (Vec, 2006).


Figure 2: Functions of interpersonal communication




Why do adults’ messages lose their impact as their children grow up? In order to understand this process, it is crucial to be aware of various communication functions. Everyone knows that use of message-transmitting functions with a baby would not lead to a set goal. If we tell a baby to do something, to stop crying or to wait for minutes we would be totally ineffective. Even when a mother says things to a small child that are part of semantic communication (for example, “Did you sleep well?”, “Will you eat this carrot?”) it is clear that these are not the questions which expect a reaction but questions with which a mother grooms her child. Already in 1955 R. Spitz (1996, 94 – 97) discovered that the separation of a child from his mother leads to developmental disturbances. His study focused on children who were separated from their mothers right after their birth and grew up in orphanages where they often had to take care of themselves. Children who did not have much contact with social environment and any toys were already crying more and more often after one month, and they started to lose their appetite and weight. Later on they experienced sleeping problems, their motor skills decreased and they were lying still and staring in front of them. Six month later they were diagnosed with striking motor and mental suppression. Consequently their immune system was weakened, they were often sick and because of that the mortality rate among those children was higher.


It is thus necessary for a child’s basic needs to be fulfilled, among them the need for social grooming and construction of social reality. And why do we become aware of the importance of social grooming only in connection with babies? Adults tend to overlook the importance of primary communication functions in interpersonal communication with adolescents. Namely, they are not aware of the fact that an adolescent is more or less an independent human being who is capable of surviving even without parents but he still needs (the same as every human being!) communication which will provide him with social grooming and with which he will co-create social reality.


Regarding the laws of the growing-up process, it is entirely natural or adequate that the amount of grooming and structuring provided by parents gradually decreases and that an adolescent starts receiving it from his group of friends. However, it is problematic that the parents’ grooming and structuring becomes less and less convenient. An adolescent receives an increased amount of one-way communication from his parents instead of taking part in a process in which communication is combined with understanding or searching for common understanding or even reconciliation and searching for a compromise (Vec, 2005, 17). Reconciliation which means finding a constructive solution (since the starting point of understanding is actually a dispute over contradictory understanding of reality or different views on reality) therefore presumes that those involved in communication have different starting points but at the same time a tendency to be reconciled.


I do not believe that adults could exchange their role with the role played by adolescents’ friends. However, they should avoid using communication ways which move them further away from their children and through which they destroy the meaning of communication which they established during their children’s growing-up process. At this level an adolescent is too often perceived as a child who is not yet capable of contributing to a reconciliation of different views on reality in a responsible, mature and equal way.


Nevertheless I would like to draw attention to another issue that nowadays troubles adolescents. In a contemporary (individualised) society communication between adolescents lacks grooming. The grooming function of communication tries to exclude personal interaction often by technical media (such as messenger, e-mails or SMS). According to Kang (2007) virtual interaction (via the internet) is linked to the feeling of loneliness and depression and it lowers social support. Alienation is gradually becoming social reality, which means it is perceived as something common and self-evident. We believe this represents a problem since it harms grooming, a primary communication function. We could presume that adolescents whose need for grooming has not been fulfilled (thus having a need for confirmation) do not form a coherent and stable personal structure which would enable them to function in an effective way, especially in interpersonal relations.


Ph.D. Tomaž Vec, spec.

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Education

Kardeljeva ploščad 16, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia

[email protected]

tel.: 00386015892318



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