Talking With Your Teenager

For many parents, it can be difficult to communicate with your teen for numerous reasons: you perceive your teenager has an attitude to everything you say, you don’t understand the terms or phrases they use, you worry about their reaction or lack of response, or you’re not comfortable talking about certain topics. Despite these reasons, some conversations are important to have earlier than many parents desire. Would you rather be uncomfortable having the conversation to provide accurate information and learn the truth from your teen, or avoid the conversation and possibly be surprised later? There isn’t a manual that you receive at the time of birth that will help you navigate the various milestones, but making a consistent effort to have open, non-judging conversation can go a long way in building and maintaining trust with your teen.

Whatever the topic might be that you want or need to discuss with your teen: sex, substance use, choice of friends, or academics; here are a few things to keep in mind:

Allow your teen to have their reaction to the topic and do your best to not react with intense anger in turn. Your negative or intense reaction can stall the communication and create fear in your teen, and teach them to not share their feelings, opinions, or that one is supposed to yell in response to uncomfortable conversations. This does not suggest that you can never show anger or upset, please show your emotions, but as the adult, you are responsible for modeling behaviors to your teen in how you would like them to express their feelings and thoughts.

For example, you decide to talk with your teen about substance use. Rather than yelling when they come home and demanding that they explain where/how they obtained the alcohol, you can state that you are angry or hurt by their decision. Ask your teen why they chose to consume the beer, and whether they understand the consequences/impact of consuming the beer, such as school suspension, banned from after school events, being arrested. Lastly, lay out your appropriate consequences, such as no driving for a month, supervised interactions with their friends, or limited access to social media. Most importantly, do not change the consequence, even it inconveniences you. By shortening the consequence, your teen may learn that if he or she behaves well enough for a week, you’ll change your mind and let them make requests, rather than completing the entire length of restriction that was initiated.

Allow your teen to ask questions, and don’t respond with “I said so” if you’re telling your teen that they cannot go somewhere or do something. Nobody enjoyed being told “Because I said so,” or not getting any response from their parents when they were a teen, so why would your teen be accepting of such a response?  While you can explain why you are not permitting them to go somewhere or participate in an activity, asking your teen to think about why you do not agree with the activity allows them to practice recognizing the consequences of their decisions, such as “Why would it not be a good idea to be out past curfew?”; or “What can happen when there is no adult supervision at your friend’s house?”

The entire conversation does not have to happen at one time, and if you need time to process, create a clear of expectation of when will you continue discussing the topic. Some individuals can talk about difficult or awkward topics in the moment of experiencing their emotions, but others need some time to gather their thoughts because their emotions feel so intense that they cannot focus on anything else. And when we experience intense emotions, sometimes we say hurtful things to our teen or the teen to the parent, in an intentional or unintentional manner to hurt their feelings, in turn. Emotional processing and utilizing “I” language can foster a more concise and productive conversation where you and your teen have a better understanding of each other.

These are just a few suggestions that help you maintain or rebuild a bridge of trust and communication with your teen. If you need help in talking with your teen, or would like your teen to talk about a specific concern, feel free to contact me to schedule a series of sessions to enhance communication skills,