Talking to Teens

To the frustration of many parents, there is little difference between the stereotypical teenager and the real one. One wrong statement can be twisted way out of context, monosyllabic grunts are the chosen form of communication, and topics that were once completely acceptable can lead to hours-long silence.

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When teens are attempting to distance themselves from their parents , they actually need them to be even more involved in their lives. After all, this is the last chance for parents to help their teen become a responsible, mature adult before going to college, moving out, or starting their own life.

Know the power of your words: The teenage years are often a very emotional and confusing time in a person’s life, so the understanding of a parent who has already gone through this stage of life can help matters greatly. So what can parents do to ensure that the communication barrier does not get too out of hand and hinder the guidance that needs to be provided?

There are several things a parent can do during a conversation with a teenager to help maintain a higher level of communication. An important thing to remember is that it is normal for communication to decrease during adolescence. As long as the situation does not get out of hand, you can find relief that this is something all parents of teens are likely going through. Yet, following these tips may help to keep your conversations more open.

  1. First of all, it is best to give the teen your full attention. They will know that you are actively listening to what they’re saying if you are not folding laundry while they tell you about their day. If it is at all possible, try to be physically close to him or her, and get away from other distractions like a TV. An example of an ideal situation is to talk to the teenager while driving them somewhere. Also, try doing things with the teen instead of separately. Even if he or she frequently rejects your ideas, keep the invitations coming. It may be especially helpful if you offer to do fun, casual things that the teenager enjoys doing. They also have a slightly higher likelihood of accepting an invitation if they are allowed to bring a friend along.
  2. Once you are in a conversation with the teen, listen to what he or she is saying and feeling, and try to figure out where they are coming from. You do not have to agree or disagree with what is being said; just listen and try to understand. You can show that you are listening by repeating their feelings. For instance, say, “I know that you want to go to the mall now, but you can go once you have finished your paper.” This way the teen at least knows that you are not just saying no, but that you have actually heard what their desire is and the steps that must be taken to get there.
  3. Many teens will stop listening if you only talk to them when you have a lecture or a point to make. Show your desire to communicate with them just for the enjoyment of conversation and willingness to attempt to see the world through their eyes. It is best to keep the topic focused on their interests. Ask them about their day or things they like; this shows them that you care about their ideas and experiences. It is also better to bring up their successes or accomplishments rather than focusing on mistakes and failures. If the teen expects to receive a negative message whenever you interact, they will start avoiding you more and more. However, if you stay positive and notice good behavior, it is more likely that they will be willing to talk to you. When commenting on something they have done well on, “you” statements are a great way to express that. For example, compliment them by saying, “You did really well on your history project.” However, when you do have to bring up something that upsets you, use an “I” statement. Say something like, “When you missed your curfew, I felt angry and worried.” You should also avoid repetition. Many teens feel that their parents make the same comments and give the same lectures, so they do not need to listen after the first time. Rather than repeating yourself, set up the consequence of not listening to the instructions the first time, and follow through with the threat if the teen does not obey. It may also work to offer an incentive for listening; this way the teen knows the punishment he or she will receive for not doing the task and the reward for doing it.
  4. Overreacting is another common mistake that parents make, and the teens are expecting it. In fact, oftentimes teens will say something specifically with the intent of getting a reaction from their parents, so doing so is basically rewarding poor behavior. To prevent this, think about your response before you give it and choose your words wisely. Rather than immediately telling the teen how wrong he or she is, calm down and start talking to them about their seemingly inappropriate plans. Show interest and talk it out with them, and if the plan is as poor as it originally sounded, they will actually realize this as they walk through things with you. For example, if teens say they want to run away, ask them about their plans for money and a new home. Remember to sound like you are truly interested rather than trying to trick them. More than likely, they will realize the flaws behind their decision, without you directly telling them.
  5. You should also choose your battles carefully and try to avoid power struggles. Finding a compromise is always better than arguing. If you let the teen be involved in making decisions and establishing consequences for his/her behavior, they will be more open than if they are just listening to a scolding. When chastising the teen, do not talk about them in a negative way. After all, it is their behavior and not really the teen that you have a problem with. Instead of saying, “You are ungrateful,” try using, “It makes me upset when you talk to me that way.” This is a lot less accusatory, so they are less likely to become defensive and more upset.
  6. Along with overreacting, asking too many questions is another issue parents often encounter when communicating with their teen. While it is important to be aware of what is going on in your teen’s life, and while they seldom provide this information voluntarily, asking a series of questions is another way to shut them down. You should ask one open-ended question to begin with and allow the teenager to elaborate. Their answer will either divulge more pieces of information that you were intending to discuss, or it can lead to another question. However, this question has come up naturally through the content of the conversation, so your teen is less likely to feel as though you are prying but rather you will convey a genuine interest and respect for them and their perspectives.

Know the power of your actions:
While these verbal tips may go a long way, there are also many nonverbal things a parent can do to keep the channels of communication with a teenager open.

  • Using an upbeat tone, for example, holds attention a lot better than a pessimistic one.
  • As in most situations, eye contact is a great way of showing that you are interested in what is being said.
  • Smiling also helps the teen feel more confident in what they are telling you.
  • Open gestures like leaning forward and nodding are more inviting than gestures like pointing your finger, crossing your arms, and putting your hands on your hips.
  • Physical contact is still very important, even though the teen may want to be asked permission first. You can take their hand to console them, or give them a pat on the back when they deserve praise. Hugs, of course, are appropriate in either situation. These touches convey unconditional love that does not fade with age.
  • Above all, show respect for your teen and give them the space and guidance to experience their growing need for independence while remaining open and available to them.

The teenage years are hard for both parents and kids. But keeping some of these important tips in mind will help you understand how your teenager might be interpreting some of the things you do and say. Being aware of how they perceive certain situations and altering your statements accordingly can make a huge difference in the quality of communication you and your teen have.

Remember, all aspects of parenting can be tough, but finding help doesn’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! For more information about communication with teenagers and other parenting challenges, visit the SCAN website at