6 Tips for Talking with Your Teen

Keep it Positive. You may not be able to sugar coat everything you have to say. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s important to emphasize your teen’s role in being able to create positive outcomes for him or herself. Teenagers are prone to hopelessness and powerlessness and surprisingly sensitive to what you think. Since they are easily hurt and secretly afraid of disappointing you, they say things like, “I don’t care what you think” and “Whatever, mom”. These thoughts help them cope with their feelings about making mistakes and disappointing you. But they do care what you think and they should, because you’re their mother or father, you know them well and you have more experience with life than they do. For that reason, what you say and how you say it is very important. I often hear things like, “My dad won’t let me… There’s nothing I can do about it.” or “My mom is ruining my life”. I then try to reassure teens that there is always something they can do to make their life better (e.g., get good grades and your dad may consider letting play sports again). Something like, “Of course you can play soccer next season. You just need to get your grades up and I know you’re definitely capable of doing that” is way healthier of a message than, “Well, I told you to get your grades up, but you haven’t, so the answer is still no”. If you phrase things in a constructive way that emphasizes the role of their actions in moving forward with life in the direction they’d like to go, they will be less prone to anxiety and depression, now and in the future.

Pick the Right Time. Teenagers continually complain to me about being interrupted by parents wanting to talk while they are enjoying relaxing, talking (texting) to friends or their favorite tv show. It may look to you like your son or daughter isn’t busy, but that doesn’t mean they are in the mood for parent-talk time. Just because they don’t want to talk to you when they are “busy” doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk to you at all. Try to establish some regular times for checking in and talking with your teenager, so that everyone is on the same page about what to expect and when. Taking your teen out for ice cream, lunch or to dinner once a week can be a good activity to make a part of your regular routine, and these occasions are usually good for checking in and communicating concerns if you have them. That way, conversations don’t seem unexpected, overly negative, or as if they are occurring only in reaction to poor behavior. If your teen approaches you for communication unexpectedly and outside of your regular check-in times, congratulations, you are doing something right! Try to reward this behavior whenever possible by making yourself available and being responsive to whatever topic your teen brings up to discuss. These occasions are not a good time to discuss concerns you’ve had unless they are directly related to the issues your teen is raising, and even then, do your best to keep your discussion of your needs, concerns and fears minimal and as positive as possible.

Say It Once. One of the most common things for teenagers to complain about when talking with their parents is that you say the same thing, over and over… and over. Your message is important and you know what you’re talking about because you’ve lived a lot longer and have been through a lot more. You really want your teen to listen to you so that they don’t have to go through the same hard experiences you’ve gone through or seen others go through. If you’re like most parents, you repeat yourself because your teen doesn’t appear to be listening, is arguing or engaging in any number of parent-irritating behaviors (e.g., eye rolling, cell phone fidgeting, “having an attitude”). Instead, try making your point clearly and concisely. Once. And then ask your teen what he or she thinks of what you just said.

Listen. And listen with respect for your teens knowledge, experience and intelligence. That’s right, although your teen might be young, relatively inexperienced and totally naive when it comes to the consequences of poor decisions, he or she still got half of their DNA from you and has benefited from years of your instruction. You can afford to think that what he or she is saying has validity and is coming from some sort of reasonable place. Wait at least three seconds (“one thousand and one, one thousand and two…”) before saying anything after he or she stops talking. This helps your teen know that you really were listening and gives him or her a chance to say anything else that comes to mind before you respond.

Validate. Ok, here is where you are really going to blow your kid’s mind. Teens often worry that their parents don’t trust or respect them. They complain that their parents “don’t listen”. Usually “not listening” means that you refuse to do what they want. You don’t have to do what your kid says they want you to do, but you can spend some time helping them feel like you heard them before you say no, or before you negotiate a compromise. Ask yourself, “what part of that made sense to me?” and then tell your teen the answer. Let him or her know that you understand why he or she would ask for what he or she wants, why that’s a good thing, how you can see if it’s important to them or why any other part of it makes sense. Remember, even if your teen acts like he or she knows it all and doesn’t care what you think, underneath all that is the child you used to know who wants your approval and to know he or she is doing something right.

Take a Break. You don’t have to have all your answers right away, and neither does your teenager. Many conversations start with the best of intentions but quickly become tense and uncomfortable. If your teen seems suddenly angry and you’re not sure why, consider setting aside your original agenda for the time being until you can understand why he or she is becoming upset. When people’s emotions shift suddenly, it’s often a sign that an underlying negative belief of some kind has been triggered. It’s a good time for a break, or at least a break from your original agenda. At this time, a shift into listening and validating on your part can greatly help your teen’s mental health. Likewise, if your teen states, “I don’t want to talk about it”, that is a good time to take a break and/or attempt to understand what he or she is afraid will happen if the subject is discussed. Finally, you don’t have to make decisions on the spot. He or she can wait until you’ve had a chance to discuss the issue with your spouse, your best friend, your therapist or your pet dog. As long as both you and your teen feel confident that your concerns will eventually be addressed, you are free to take your time in addressing them in a careful and constructive way. These experience will build your teen’s sense of confidence and competence in his or her capacity to have constructive conversations with others.

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