Talking to Teens: How to Start the Conversation Part 1

Talking to Teens is like trying to build the Tower of Babel.

Posted Dec 29, 2014

I find it interesting when I hear parents refer to the dreaded “talk.” It could be the

“The Birds and the Bees Talk,” “The Hormones are Changing Talk,” “The Don’t Drink Alcohol Talk,” “The Don’t Do Drugs Talk”…. “The Talk.” 

When parents refer to “the talk,” the fear around talking openly with their kids about the basics of sex, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, about puberty, peer pressure, Internet safety and beyond is transparent. While “the talk” can feel complicated at all ages – the teen years seem to present more challenges, conflict, and stress between parent and child. 

Having founded and launched several treatment centers for teens struggling with addiction and mental health disorder in Bel Air, Topanga, and Ojai, California, we see that by the time a teen arrives for treatment the lines of communication between parent and child has often been challenged and in some cases are severely broken. Success is seeing teens leave our treatment centers in greater harmony with themselves and their families and with open lines of communication. In a therapeutic environment, a therapist will work with both the teen and parents to help them formulate a constructive dialogue to improve communication, understanding, and collaboration. We call this “transparency” - the act of engaging in open communication as a parent with your child. 

A healthy relationship starts with communication. It starts with the smallest effort: starting the conversation. The conversation doesn't have to be ground breaking, and the topic doesn’t have to be unique. You can talk sports, weather, hobbies, books etc.

A conversation between a parent and a child is like building a tower together. If an open two-way dialogue is established early with your kids, that give and take builds trust and respect. No one wants to be lectured, especially teens. What many parents fail to realize is that with teens setting the rules, determining freedom, giving advise, and dealing with critical issues is most effective when it comes as part of a greater conversation. Teens are certainly more open to hearing a parent say no, and accept the no, if they know that they can trust you to say yes at other times. If all they hear from you is the NO, it's counter productive. 

So, if the lines of communication are open in your family and your teen already feels comfortable asking you anything, a general rule of thumb, is to wait for your child to broach today's tough issues with you. There is no need to force issues prematurely.

However, if your child is approaching middle school and there are topics looming that have not been addressed, don’t wait for something bad to happen.

Some parents fear the “teen years.” That fear of the “teen years” and “teen” challenges can widen the gap in communication. Don’t lose sight. There is no perfect prescription for communicating with teens. Nonetheless, there are ways to make communication easier, to turn negative conversation into positive ones, and most importantly to listen more and talk less.

Here are some of our tips to “start the conversation” and how to maintain healthy communication between you and your teen. And again don't wait for a crisis. Remember the BS factor doesn’t fly with teens and “do it because I said so” – doesn’t work either.

Start the conversation: Start it early and start it often -- well before the age or events around which you expect issues to pop up. Remember if you find that “teaching moment,” or opportunity to talk about a challenging topic -- keep it short and simple. If you are going on and on, your teen is thinking, “I got the point already, please STOP.” So, stop talking before your teen tunes out. 

Set the stage: If the rules and boundaries are understood and in place regarding any critical issue that may impact your teens (choices about sex, drugs, alcohol, and beyond) then the parent should be able to trust their teen to make the right choices. If that trust isn’t there or is broken the teen should lose autonomy, privileges and the like. Choices will be made for the teen by virtue of their actions. Tough love doesn't mean letting your child fail, it means setting the stage for positive reinforcement or serious consequences that you and your teen understand and accept. In the end, teen will learn that their choices and actions determine the outcomes.

Stay connected: Most likely your teen won’t want to “hang out” with you be present and available to “listen” to your teen and create a space to talk about the “not-so tough issues,” opens the door to an open dialogue. Know your child's life and engage with those around them. Don't be a stranger. Be in regular contact with the school, extra curricular folks, other parents, etc. This doesn't mean being a "helicopter parent" but it sure beats having your head in the sand when it comes to your child's well being. 

Be consistent: Consistency is key to the success of anything, especially relationships, and especially with teens. You must follow through and sometimes that means removing emotion from the picture and being "scientific" about it. Study up on teen issues, study up on what works, follow the rules to the gram, test out different methods of interaction, find ways to connect, and most of all remember that things may occasionally bubble, or even blow up, but then you clean up and try again.

The first step is starting a conversation. The next series of posts will explore the development and implementation of communication on a variety of topics. I hope you find these tools and anecdotes to be useful. I encourage feedback and communication from you.