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How to Talk With Teens

Tips to keep communication going when it matters most.

When it comes to talking with teens, a parent recently shared with me, "I think the hardest part is just not knowing if the conversations we are having make any difference. My daughter is not a talker, and I seem to annoy her a lot right now, so it is just impossible to know how she is really doing. She is just in her own orbit."

When kids are young, the orbit of their world is tiny, and we are largely at the center. It is both exhausting and delightful. We know a lot about their lives and have a lot of insight into and control over their whereabouts and choices.

As they grow up, their orbit expands, changes shape, and starts rotating around different centers of gravity. This is partly because young people are engaged in an incredibly important and sophisticated developmental task – they have to start answering the questions, “Who am I?” and, “Who do I want to be?”

These questions are more difficult for teens to sort through when they are plastered to their parent’s side. Many teens have to deliberately create space and get out into the world to start forging their own identity.

Canva, with permission
Source: Canva, with permission

Where does that leave parents?

All that new independence, wobbly orbiting, and even active pushing away make it tricky for us parents to know how to respond. Change is scary for all of us! It is easy for fear to drive us to two extremes when it comes to trying to talk with teens: The Smother or The Aloof.

In our panic about not knowing it all, it is easy to become overbearing. This is what The Smother sounds like: Tell me everything! The less they share, the more we probe.

On the other hand, hurt and disoriented by the space they are asking us for, it is easy to adopt The Aloof approach. This is what that sounds like: “You don’t want to talk to me? Fine. I'll stop asking.”

Neither of these approaches serves us or our teens very well. Young people’s insistence on privacy, autonomy, and space is developmentally appropriate and right on schedule. At the same time, their decision-making skills are a work-in-progress and their brains still need coaching and conversation to build healthy skills of independence.

So how do we talk with teens when they are actively pulling away? What do we do when all we receive are single-word-answers or what we perceive to be a negative attitude? It turns out that communicating with teens is more of an art than a science. If you need the motivation to stick with it, remember that there is a lot of science that reinforces just how important our commitment to that art is. Parent-teen communication is a key protective factor for teens, shaping everything from physical and mental health outcomes to school performance and self-esteem.

In other words, they don’t always turn towards us and thank us for our attempts at conversation but they really do rely on them for guidance.

Tips for talking with teens:

  • Learn about the teenage brain. Understanding more about the teenage brain, and specifically about communication and the teenage brain, can help us gain insight, understanding and, most importantly, empathy for our teen’s experience. The science also points to helpful conversation tips to avoid power struggles and emotional landmines.
  • Listen. Sometimes we worry so much about what to say we forget to close our mouths and open our ears. Pay attention to what your teen shares even outside the context of a “serious conversation.” Many teens are most likely to share when they feel less pressure for details and more in control of the context. Teens also share a lot without talking at all – through their mood, their choices, and their body language. Pay attention to and listen for these insights into their lives.
  • Don’t duck the hard conversations. If we are uncomfortable talking about something, that probably means we should. Conversations with teens about sexual health, gender, relationships, drugs and alcohol, consent and other tricky conversations are essential. Don’t leave these conversations only to the media, the internet or their peers.
  • Take a deep breath before you respond. It’s not uncommon for the things your teen shares to trigger worry or anxiety which can cause us to over-respond. We are allowed opinions and get to share our values, but responding with long emotional lectures tends to shut down further dialogue. Note your internal response, take a deep breath, and ask another question if you need more time to gather your thoughts in a helpful way. If you feel like a conversation has you on your heels, it’s okay to say “I love you. I don’t quite understand this yet but we will figure it out together. How can I help right now?”
  • Reframe the goal — just "grab a tile." I often encourage parents to think about conversations with teenagers as “mosaic conversations” where the goal is simply to grab a tile rather than construct an entire masterpiece.

When our kids are little we often have a more full picture of our kids' physical and emotional landscape. In other words, we get tons of “tiles.” As they get older, we get fewer of them. Teens keep some for themselves and give others away, most often to their friends. This is developmentally appropriate and right on time.

Our goal when we ask questions or start conversations isn’t to get every single mosaic tile or detail all at once. It is to grab a tile or two. Add them to your pile and take note of what you start to see. What’s missing? What’s exciting? What’s scary? What’s inspiring? Make sure there are other caring adults grabbing tiles as well.

Remember, your teen is busy constructing a much bigger picture, and while it takes a lot of patience to watch it emerge, it is well worth being there during the process.

More from Erin Walsh, M.A. and David Walsh, Ph.D.
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