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Respectful Communication with Your More Independent Teenager

Ways parents might want to talk differently when their child becomes adolescent

The question amounted to this: “Now that my child is a teenager, do I need to communicate differently?” I believe the answer is, “in some ways, yes. It must be conducted more Respectfully.” Consider why this might be so.

As the transition from Attachment Parenting the child (up to about ages 8-10) to Detachment Parenting the adolescent (beginning about ages 9-13) begins, the focus in the relationship between parent and young person changes from mutual holding on to more letting each other go.

Childhood Attachment makes closeness and communication relatively easy compared with Adolescent Detachment when more distance, differentiation, and disagreement can get in the way. As the adolescent pushes against and pulls away from the parent for more independence, increasing separation, opposition, and diversity grows between them.

In response to growing Separation, parents have to give more privacy and learn to get by on less information than they would ideally like to know. In response to growing Opposition, parents have to deal with more argument and accept that they will get their way less often than they would ideally like. In response to growing Diversity, parents have to tolerate more trial expressions of image, interests, and identity than they are entirely comfortable with.

Now parental communication must encompass more ignorance, conflict, and unfamiliarity so they can stay connected to their daughter or son while adolescence grows them apart, as it is meant to do.

Their child’s adolescence puts the communication skills of most parents to the test. For example, what worked with the child works less easily with the adolescent. Thus, when making a demand of a child who is operating in the age of command (believing that she or he has to do what parents say), her or his compliance may be automatic. Doing so with an adolescent, however, who is operating in the age of consent (knowing that going or not going along with what parents want is a matter of personal choice) is more likely to yield delay or dispute in response.

The key to managing parental communication with their adolescence is, I believe, showing Respect for adolescent change. Why respect? Because if they want their teenager to act more “adult,” they need to communicate in ways that acknowledge and encourage the young person’s more independent standing. Below are four suggested ways in which Respectful Communication might be done.


Why does the adolescent start arguing more? The answer is because active arguing is more “independent” communication than passive, dependent compliance. Now the young person asserts the gathering power of youth against the established power of adulthood by questioning and contesting it. By speaking up and standing up for oneself against the most significant authorities in her or his world, the adolescent expresses more grown up standing by challenging the grown up powers that be.

Parents who are used to silent obedience from the child may not appreciate the necessity of being now taken on in argumentative fashion. However, they need to respect this change as an important exercise of growing independence, value how it informs them about the adolescent’s state of mind, and use it as an opportunity (by example, instruction, and interaction) to teach the respectful use of language when conducting verbal disagreement in a caring relationship.


The child was used to being questioned by parents because she believed superior standing entitled them to demand information. This was as part of the adult right to know whatever they wanted, and she had an obligation to respond. Growing sense of independence in adolescence, however, creates more resistance to adult questioning on two counts. First, adult questions are emblematic of authority at an age when social freedom is to be more to be desired. And second, adult questions are invasive of personal privacy when there is more need to be less fully known.

Does this mean that parents should cease all use of questions when their daughter or son enters adolescence? Of course it does not. But is does mean that they are likely to get more information and arouse less resistance if they can communicate their information needs more respectfully. Increasingly relying on requests is how this is done. Requests are acts of courtesy that convey respect for the young person’s independent control over what they wish to tell and decide to do.

Requests can sound like this. “Please tell me more about what you want and why.” “Please help me better understand what’s happening.” “Having more information would settle my worries down.” “I would really appreciate it if you would satisfy my need to know.” Requests convey respect that a demanding question never can.


An adolescent can have a lot to say when explaining their wants, expressing their opinion, voicing their disagreement, or defending their actions. Tired, impatient, or distracted, parents may want to limit listening and cut the communication off. However, hearing the young person out signifies respect by giving full time, attention, and interest to what the young person has to say. A full hearing affirms the value of what the teenager has to communicate. “All you have to say about this is worth my listening to, just as I hope all I have to say is worth listening for you.”

And there often seems to be connection between a teenager, whose objections have been given a full hearing, who then consents to what the parent wants or doesn’t want to have happen. Why? Often the answer is because the young person has been respectfully accorded a fair say. “At least I got to speak my mind and my parents heard me out.”


One common difference between parent and adolescent is that the young person’s readiness to talk is more mood-dependent. Capacity to communicate what is difficult or sensitive or feels important to some degree depends on emotional comfort or readiness or openness to express what is on her mind or in her heart, and parents need to respect this.

“I don’t feel like talking about it right now” is often not an evasion of communication, as some parents think, but an honest statement that a better psychological time is needed. So the parent might respond: “I understand. Please let me know when you want to talk, and I will be ready to listen.” The parent is respecting the teenager’s right to determine emotional readiness to speak about whatever is going on. This said, when the teenager does announce a “right time,” parents need to accessible then, even if it is inconvenient because they are otherwise occupied and busy. “Do you mean we have to drop what we are doing when our teenager wants to talk?” In general, my answer is “yes.” If they put the young person off until later, “later” is unlikely to come.

When parents have an issue to address that is hard for the adolescent, they can give the young person a choice within a choice. So in the morning they say, “We need to discuss this with you before supper; please let us know the best time for us to talk.”

Parents have to change how they communicate to their daughter or son through the growing up years. This was succinctly explained to me a number of years ago. “When you want something done, you tell the child, you convince the adolescent, and you ask the young adult.” The older the young person becomes, the more respectful communication counts.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, ‘SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescents Who Can’t Work Hard Enough