Tips for Talking to Your Teen

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by UB Therapist Andrea Watkins

Lately I’ve noticed a pattern from the parents of my clients. “How do I tell them to do this?” “What can I do to make them do that?” “How can I get them to talk more to me?” “Why do they disagree with everything I tell them to do?!” No doubt, parents have THE HARDEST job out there and when communication starts breaking down, it causes everyone to ask questions like this. However, the harsh reality is that almost all teens (in some shape or form) will start to defy parents, decrease communication and focus more on other social relationships. The reality is your baby is growing up.

Think about it- teenagers are going through some pretty crazy physical, mental and emotional changes and during this time, they start to seek more independence. In order for them to grow and mature, they need to separate from their parents and find their own identity (Purcell, 2006). Coinciding with this is a transition for parents- starting to lose control of their teens decisions and no longer being their first source of comfort and support. So everyone is probably in a heightened state of emotion, no wonder communication becomes rocky!

I wanted to give some practical tips for how to talk to your teens and also understand that though teens are looking for privacy, if you make a safe and accepting environment for them, teens will come to you when they need you.

Avoid Lecturing. Lecturing is a one-sided conversation and often leads kids to feel unheard and disrespected. Lecturing also takes away learning your kid’s side of the story and can lead you to make assumptions.

Minimize Judgmental and Critical Wording. Only a small part of your conversation with your teen should be about what they did wrong or what you think needs to be changed. Steer clear of comments that sound judgmental, including towards their friends and peers- these are important people in their lives and to cut them down will possibly create a division between you and your child. Also, be careful with “why” questions, which can often put teens (and adults!) on the defense.

Be A Good Listener. This is a very important one! I’ve had so many of my teen clients comment that their parents “don’t get it” or “just don’t understand me.” Take time to listen to your teens thoughts, concerns and open up the dialogue of ways to compromise. Even if what they are telling you seems small, stop and give them your full attention!

Respect Their Privacy. Give a little-get a little is the key with teens and privacy. If you don’t harp on them having closed doors and hushed phone calls, they might be more willing to tell you more information.

Start Giving More Freedom. Same idea with privacy. If you give your teens a little autonomy and further decision-making power, they will start to see that you trust them, and thus, will be more likely to open up when the need is there.

Accept and Understand Their Feelings. Saying the usual “Oh, don’t feel that way” or “It’s not that big of a deal” can make kids believe their feelings are not important, or worse, that their feelings are wrong. Validate your kid’s feelings (as long as they are respectfully conveyed) by saying comments such as “that must be hard for you to be so sad” or “I can tell that this makes you upset, and that’s okay.”

Don’t Tell Others About The Conversation.  This is a big value for teenagers, so please, don’t call your friends and rant about your kids issues, only for your teen to hear it from that friend’s kids the next day at school. Any drop of trust your teen has will start to evaporate. If it is necessary to tell someone about what your teen discussed, make sure the teen knows so they are not blindsided.

Find The Right Timing. Consider a time that would be good for them- not when they walk in the door from school or right before bed. Even scheduling a time to talk by forewarning them that you need to talk after dinner, before work, etc, can help minimize the feeling of being ambushed (which teens often feel.)

Ask Open-Ended Questions. Try to phrase your questions in order to get teens to answer with more than a yes or no. For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?”, phrase it as an open question like “Tell me about your day at school.” Also, try your best to limit questions in general and make them comments, such as “I noticed you didn’t come home with your BFF,” rather than “Why wasn’t your BFF with you?” Too many questions can appear abrasive to teens.

References

(1) Purcell, M. (2006). How to Talk With Your Teenagers, Not at Them. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 11, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-talk-with-your-teenagers-not-at-them/000528.

(2) Tartakovsky, M. (2014). Tips for Talking to Your Teen. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 10, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/01/03/tips-for-talking-to-your-teen/