How do you talk to teens? Parents have been trying to figure this out for a long time. Talking to teens isn’t always easy. But it’s more important than you might imagine.
An ongoing, meaningful connection between kids and parents is key. In addition, it is one of the most powerful factors in supporting teen mental and physical health. Consequently, research has found that parental involvement is extremely beneficial. Furthermore, this is expressed through communication in which teens open up with parents about what they’re thinking and feeling. Hence, a deeper connection is established. Therefore we must apply tools to talk to teens in a thoughtful way.
Specifically, researchers have found that communication between parents and teens has the following effects:
- Decreases teen risk-taking behaviors
- Reduces adolescent substance abuse
- Decreases teen sexual activity
- Increases use of contraception
- Improves teen mental health.
Clearly, communication with parents has a significant impact in keeping teens happy and healthy. But having deeper conversations with your teen isn’t always easy. In fact, having any sort of conversation can be difficult with a moody teen. Therefore, here are some suggestions for clearing the path to open communication with your adolescent.
How to Start a Conversation
Sometimes the toughest part of communicating is kicking off a conversation. Whether you want to address something significant or just have a friendly chat, breaking the ice with a teen can be tough. Here are some do’s and don’ts when you talk to teens—in the car, at the dinner table, or anytime.
Talk to Teens
What not to do:
Don’t ask “So is everything fine?” When you ask your child if everything is fine, you’re giving her the message that you want everything to be fine. She doesn’t want to disappoint you, so she’s more likely to just nod in response and let you believe that everything’s fine, even if it isn’t.
Don’t ask questions that are too general, like “How was your day?” often produce one-word answers like “Good” or “Okay” that don’t give you any information about what your child is really feeling. This phrase is a conversation killer with adolescents.
What to do:
Do ask specific yet open-ended questions like “How was your get-together with so-and-so?” or “How did that test go?”
Do give your kids the sense that you’re open to anything they have to say, whether positive or not so positive. Thus, they’re more likely to share what’s going on in their lives.
Five Ways to Make Communication Part of Every Day
- Talk about trivial things sometimes. Not every conversation has to be deep and meaningful. Watch a movie or TV show together and discuss it. Read the same book and compare your views. Talk about the latest celebrity gossip or fashion. Anything that engages your teen—without being overly negative or critical—is fair game. The idea is to stay in practice so that deeper conversations don’t feel like as much of a stretch.
- Build in regular check-in times. A weekly sit-down with the family can nip potential conflicts in the bud. Set a time that works well for everyone and don’t rush through the conversation. Try asking questions like, What worked well for us this week? Does anyone have particular requests or needs this week? It’s a lot easier to process issues when you’re not at a point of crisis.
- Play a sharing game at the dinner table. Go around the table and play your favorite variation of the game known as “Rose, Thorn, and Bud.” Each person shares their rose (the best moment of the day), their thorn (the most challenging moment of the day) and their bud (something they’re excited or hopeful about).
- Find places for communication in your regular routine. Driving in the car, walking, shopping, or saying goodnight to your teen are all opportunities for low-pressure conversations. Sometimes it’s easier for a teen to open up when they’re not in face-to-face contact (as when driving or walking), or when it’s dark in the room before bed.
- Write to your teen. If talking is a bit tough for you and/or your child, try using texts or e-mails to communicate occasionally. The written word is sometimes easier to absorb for teens—whether it’s an explanation of why you’ve set a limit, or simply an expression of love and appreciation. And teenagers might appreciate the opportunity to express themselves in writing, rather than trying to find the right words in the heat of the moment.
Establishing limits for an adolescent is often necessary. Here are some areas in which setting boundaries can be essential or very important for teens.
- Technology use
- Substance use
- Using the car
- Having friends over.
Parents have good reasons for setting limits in all of these areas, and more. But parents also need to respect teens enough to explain the reasons behind their decisions. “Because I said so” or “You’ll understand when you’re a parent” are not helpful statements when communicating limits to a teen. On the contrary, these classic parental fallbacks are guaranteed to increase a teenager’s frustration.
Four Easy Steps to Set Limits
Instead, try these four steps for communicating limits to your child.
- Start with love, and listen closely. Most important: Always begin the conversation with an attitude of loving acceptance. Before you talk, let your teen say their piece, and don’t interrupt. Listen patiently and show with your facial expression and with a nod or two that you care about what they have to say.
- Acknowledge how they feel and what they want. It’s critical for adolescents to feel understood and validated. Once they’ve presented their case, make it clear that you believe their request or complaint is important and worth addressing. Make sure they know that you’re not angry with them because of their request. Your teenager’s request can be quite valid for them, even if it doesn’t seem that way to you.
- Explain why you don’t think it’s the right thing. Tell your teen, “I understand why you want to do this, and here’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea.” (Using the word “and” rather than “but” is a good way to honor their feelings.) Then list the reasons. But don’t go into too much detail: The prefrontal cortex—the reasonable, responsible part of the brain—is still developing in adolescents, so trying to appeal to their common sense doesn’t usually work.
- Clarify how it’s going to work. Lay out the guidelines, and the consequences if they choose to ignore the limits. Remind them that they have the choice to respect or reject the rules, but rejection will lead to appropriate consequences. You might even consider drafting a written agreement so you’re both on the same page. And negotiation is acceptable if you feel there’s room for compromise. In addition, avoid power struggles at all costs, however.
Staying Calm and Centered in a Conversation
Talking to teenagers can be stressful. But if you’re able to regulate your own emotions during a charged discussion, chances are your teen will do better, too. Consequently, the conversation will go better for both of you. Try these methods for keeping your cool.
- Breathe and relax. Take long, slow, deep breaths, which activates your parasympathetic (“relaxation and recuperation”) nervous system and slows your heart rate. As you breathe, notice where you’re holding tension in your body and consciously release it.
- Don’t take it personally. Your teen is developing their identity and opinions, and part of that is disagreeing with and pushing back against what they perceive as parental control. Remember, this is not about how good or bad of a parent you are.
- Remind yourself that you are a role model. The way you conduct yourself in a conversation shows your child how productive—or how messy—communication can be. Remind yourself how important it is for you to serve as a positive example, and let this be an incentive to avoid yelling, getting overly emotional, or blaming your teen.
- Take a timeout. If you sense that you’re not getting anywhere, or either you or your teen is too worked up to continue talking, take a timeout. Tell your teen you’re going to pause the conversation and revisit it later.
Communication Without Words
When talking with your teen, it’s helpful to pay attention to their nonverbal communication. Often, the words that come out of our mouths aren’t expressing the emotions that really underlie them. Pay close attention not only to the content of a conversation, but also to your teen’s body language and tone.
What desire, fear, sadness, or insecurity can you intuit beneath what might seem like an angry or resistant attitude? If you think you sense something that isn’t being said, speak to it gently. If they’re sad or angry, let them know that’s okay and those feelings should be honored.
Getting Comfortable with Emotions
Teens and parents alike need to feel safe to open up. Hence, it is important to create that sense of safety with one another. When you let others know their feelings are accepted, they can open up. Therefore, this level of comfort is key when talking to teens.
“We all need to become more comfortable tolerating and embracing a wide range of emotions. When I do group sessions with parents and someone starts to cry, it’s amazing how many people throw Kleenex at them—which gives them the message that they need to suck it up and wipe it away. Sometimes I make it a rule that no one else can get the Kleenex for them.”
—Marcie Beasley, LMFT Clinical Director, Newport Academy
Read “5 Ways to Balance Teen Emotions and Increase Well-Being.”
Talking to Your Teen About Depression and Suicide
Staggering statistics recently released from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reveal that 17 percent of high school students have contemplated suicide. 8 percent made an attempt at suicide in the past 12 months. Furthermore, for youth between 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, resulting in 4,600 fatalities each year. Also, approximately 157,000 youth receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries annually, according to the CDC.
Obviously, the reality is that teens are under extreme duress. Parents need to be aware of the symptoms and talk to their teens.
Watch Caroline Fenkel, Clinician at Newport Academy, speaking on teen mental health and suicide prevention on C-SPAN.
10 signs of teen depression
- Avoidance of social situations and a loss of interest in favored activities
- Exhaustion, constant fatigue, and a generalized lack of energy
- Sense of despair, sadness, and hopelessness (sometimes escalating into suicidal thoughts)
- Lack of motivation (resulting in feelings of either guilt and/or failure)
- Unexplained aches and pains, headaches, stomach problems
- Hard time concentrating (particularly for teens who used to be focused)
- Feeling worthless, irritable, frustrated, or having an extreme case of low self-esteem
- Disturbed sleep patterns (taking naps during the day, insomnia at night)
- Changes in appetite and weight (including not eating on a regular basis or binge eating)
- Abusing alcohol or drugs to cope with the pain as a form of self-medication
How to talk about depression with your teenager
- Focus on the best qualities of your child and visualize a positive outcome.
- Find a safe environment to talk face-to-face, in person.
- Listening is key; lecturing will shut down a teen’s ability to respond.
- Make a real effort to understand what they are feeling and why.
- Offer teen depression treatment options that work.
Sharing Goes Both Ways
Communication isn’t just about parents listening to their kids. It’s about kids learning more about their parents’ lives. That doesn’t mean telling them how much better you behaved back when you were a teenager. It does mean …
- Sharing your own teenage experiences in appropriate ways, to illustrate what you might have changed or not if you could go back to that time
- Talking about what matters to you and why, to give your teen a sense of why you make the choices you do
- Making sure not to share information that will needlessly upset your child
- Letting your teen know that you’ve gone through what they’re going through now, and you found a way to grow from the experience.
In conclusion, no matter what circumstance, it is imperative we talk to teens. Keep at it, even when it seems uncomfortable or intimidating. The more often you communicate, the easier and more enjoyable it will become.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash
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Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2015; 157: 129.
Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 51, Issue 4, Sep 2011, 423-428.