Awkward but Important Conversations with Adolescents

The potential benefits of making an effort to connect.

Posted Dec 12, 2018

“I just don’t know how to talk to my teenager!”

The idea that teens and adolescents are difficult to talk to, challenging to connect with, and simply unlikely to listen to potentially valuable lessons, is a commonly held belief. However, take a moment to think back to your own adolescent and teenage years. What were some of the questions about life that you were wondering about or wish you knew how to ask? The idea that young people are not open to guidance from adults is one of many persistent and often inaccurate ideas or stereotypes about adolescents that seem to float around society. These ideas can have self-fulfilling consequences for how we treat or interact with young people. A closer look, though, often reveals that adolescents can be especially socially attentive and vigilant to subtle cues and useful information from people around them. Even though it may feel awkward for adults to initiate meaningful conversations with young people, evidence suggests that these efforts can go a long way in helping to guide them toward effectively pursuing their goals.

In one recent study, my colleagues and I aimed to provide support and encouragement for parents of eighth-grade students to initiate important conversations with them about the future.1 We recruited a panel of six parents whose children had already progressed through eighth grade into high school or beyond to provide the encouragement. After learning their stories and experiences with their own children, we organized a parent panel program where they would share those stories with parents whose children were currently in the eighth grade. These parents of current eighth-graders came to an afterschool event where some of them were randomly assigned to listen to our panel of experienced parents. During the event, the experienced parents shared their own insights regarding talking to their own kids about possible future pathways like college and resources like financial aid. The experienced parents also discussed some of the social and academic challenges that their children faced during adolescence and how they responded as parents.

After the hour-long event, current eighth-grade parents who watched the panelists received some reinforcing information to take home and they completed a short survey providing their reaction to the event. When we compared responses on the survey to parents who were randomly assigned to a control group, we found some important effects of observing the experienced parent panel. First, parents who watched the panel subsequently felt compelled to talk with their children significantly sooner about things like college and college financial aid than parents who were in the control group. Second, parents who watched the panel also indicated a more positive attitude about difficulties that their child experiences in school. In particular, they viewed academic difficulty as a sign that their child is working on something important and meaningful rather than impossible and meaningless. As we suspected, the subtle ways that parents respond to academic difficulty that their children experience mattered for their actual academic performance throughout the following school year. As a result, eighth-graders whose parents observed the panel had a significant increase in their grades of about half a letter grade compared to those in the control group.

During adolescence, young people are developing ideas about their future and about what it means to encounter difficulty in school. Parents have an opportunity to help guide some of those ideas deliberately with meaningful conversations. Alternatively, they might risk inadvertently sending negative messages about the meaning of challenges and possibilities or lack thereof for the future. Whether we choose to say something or not, we are constantly communicating messages to our children and they are listening. Overcoming the awkwardness to initiate a meaningful conversation with your teenager can go a long way.

References

1. Destin, M., & Svoboda, R. (2017). A brief randomized controlled intervention targeting parents improves grades during middle school. Journal of Adolescence, 56, 157–161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.02.010