“How was your day?”
“What did you learn at school today?”
This is a familiar conversation for most families with teens. During adolescence, a variety of reasons cause teens to turn their focus and self-disclosure towards peers instead of their family. However, it is still critically important to stay in the loop as a family about what everyone is up to. Some families fall into the trap of focusing on updates from their teen, which puts undue pressure on them to share and they’ll likely fight back harder.
Barabra Jo Brothers, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and one of Virginia Satir’s earliest students, shares one simple tool for the maintenance of effective communication within a family: the use of Virginia Satir’s Daily Temperature Reading.
There are 5 elements to the temperature reading:
1. Appreciations and excitements
This initial start has an amazing neutralizing effect on possible toxins and strong feelings that might arise during the other topics. The expression of appreciation sets the stage for respectful regard for each speaker. For best results, keep a current and specific focus, rather than generalities. Examples could sound like, “I liked it when you noticed I had cleaned my room yesterday” or “I’m really glad we were able to find time for dinner together tonight”.
2. New information
Be intentional about creating space for new information so that family members can share information that they otherwise may not find the right time for. You can model self-disclosure by sharing what’s been happening in your life, whether it's something significant or relatively minor. Often, when one update is given, more new information follows. Sharing new information could sound start with phrases like, “I really wanted to tell you about…” or “I heard today ....”. You can invite other family members to share new information by asking, “What’s been keeping you busy today?” or “Is anything on your mind today?”.
3. Worries, concerns, and puzzles
What assumptions are you making that you haven’t checked out that could be affecting your own attitude, beliefs or actions? Clear-up big or little mysteries before they become suspicions, false assumptions, or resentments by giving them air. Most "puzzles" have simple explanations. It could sound like, "I noticed you were up past bedtime last night. What happened?" When given space to explain (without assumptions about what happened from their perspective), your teen may be more receptive to sharing what happened: "I had a really hard math assignment that I didn’t know how to do. I had to wait for my friend to free up after sports practice to help me through it, so I started that assignment pretty late." You have to ask in order to understand your teen’s point of view. Making assumptions about them being lazy, unwilling, or otherwise unhelpful can hurt the quality of your conversation and overall relationship.
4. Complaints and recommendations
We are all unique, so of course differences are a natural part of every human relationship. We’re all influenced by our individual perspective, personal history, and life experience, as well as our physical, mental, and emotional well-being at any given moment in time, even within the same family! Rarely are differences themselves destructive to relationships; frequently, however, the ways families deal with differences can become destructive.
Practice getting in the habit of saying what you want rather than what you don't want. Describe a specific behavior that bothers you and explain how you'd like it done. Always make sure your complaint comes with a recommended solution because this helps move you out of simplistic blaming and the expression of anger and into engaging in creative thought and interaction. In addition to elevating the level of discussion, the person with the complaint is usually the one with the most knowledge on the subject, so you’re likely to have a good solution in mind already! In any case, stay open for a discussion about how to remedy the complaint you’ve raised.
So, instead of "I hate it when you don’t text me to say you’re coming home late," you might try, "Honey, when you’re staying late at school, please text to let me know why you’re staying late and when we can expect you home. This helps me worry less and plan for dinner. If texting to say this doesn’t work for you, I’d also love to hear your ideas for what could work better."
5. Hopes and wishes
The more we understand each other’s hopes and wishes, the more we can help each other reach those goals. Think about long and short term goals that you can share with your family. What are you hoping to get done today? What about this weekend? And by the end of the year? Regularly sharing your wishes, hopes and dreams – and encouraging others to share with you – can bring your family closer to each other. This could sound like, “I’m hoping to finish cleaning the storage closet by tomorrow”, "I'm really looking forward to our movie night this weekend!", or "Is there a holiday tradition you want to do this year?".
It’s important to note that the order of these elements matter. Although it is possible to scramble numbers 2-4, it is critically important to begin with “appreciations” because it’ll set a respectful tone for the forthcoming conversation.
Practicing a daily temperature reading with your family can help you:
Avoid building resentment by expressing feelings, questions, and thoughts
Feel better about yourself and your family relationships through intentional and consistent appreciation
Help your family members feel more heard
Help your family members see more of who you are, and what you like and what you do not like
Even more importantly, the Daily Temperature Reading tool provides a paradigm which helps ease the family — from a threat and reward or punishment model, in which rules are rigidly enforced with no questions asked — toward an “organic seed model”.
The organic seed model is based on the concept that, like plants in a garden, people will grow if obstacles are removed and basic nurturing elements are added. Roses and corn plants do not need an ‘incentive program’ to blossom and ripen. Nor would they respond to beating and cursing–except to wither and die if the former were severe enough to affect their structure. So in the organic seed model, each family member is given a voice and together, you nurture and meet the unique needs, doubts, and hopes of your family.
Barbara Jo Brothers is a licensed clinical social worker with over fifty years of experience in the field of mental health and psychotherapy. She was the 2017 recipient of the Outstanding Service Award given by the Virginia Satir Global Network and recognized for her contribution to Satir’s legacy through her courses and writings. Brothers was the editor of the Newsletter of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, associate editor of Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, and editor of the Journal of Couples Therapy.