Your Therapy

How to Talk to Your Teen



It’s a common joke that “Can we talk?” is the scariest thing any romantic partner can hear from another. But for many of us, initiating a difficult conversation with your spouse is a picnic compared to conversing with your teenager. They roll their eyes and sigh, your nerves fray, and tempers are quickly lost. You may even be tempted to just leave them alone as much as possible, but that’s just not healthy. It is important to have a trusting relationship with your teenage son or daughter, and that’s built by being able to talk together.

Teens tend to go through crises as they figure out who they are, their beliefs and their values. It’s an emotionally fraught time, and they need parents in the background, ready to catch them if they fall. We are their safety nets, and knowing they have us there makes it easier for teens to survive these crises. That said, our job is to be there, but not to take over and solve things. That’s because navigating peer relationships and life challenges is a key part of adolescent development, and it’s important for teens to hit their developmental milestones. It’s no different than when they were young. For example, potty training is a key milestone for toddlers. We teach, support and help our toddler achieve this goal. But we can’t do it for them. And if toddlers  don’t learn it on their own by age 4 or so, they’ll be distressed or embarrassed.

Similarly, some crucial developmental milestones for teens include developing an identity, testing limits and boundaries, and learning to manage their emotions. You can’t do it for them. Instead, at this stage of parenting, you need to sit back, and be there to help if needed. The only influence you have with your teen is your relationship. Through that relationship you will have opportunities to talk about the important topics in his or her life. But if you can’t talk, none of this works.

The Prime Directive

My absolute #1 prime directive about talking to your teenager is this: Build your relationship. One important way to do this is by understanding their perspective. As hard as it is (especially when you know you’re right, or have hard-earned wisdom on a topic) you MUST restrain yourself from giving advice. Don’t say: “I’ve been there, so I understand what you’re going through.” Honestly, your teen thinks you are so old and square that you can’t possibly understand their life or this “modern” era. So offering “been there, done that” advice doesn’t encourage conversation—it shuts things down.  (Once you’ve built a better relationship, you can share your own youthful experiences, but that’s only for advanced teen whisperers.) And remember: Even if you do know how to solve your teen’s crisis, figuring out the solution on their own is crucial to their development. Telling them what to do denies them the opportunity of doing it on their own.

Back From the Brink

The other essential for building a better relationship is that you must stop fighting. You can’t hug a porcupine when its quills are up, and you can’t meaningfully communicate with anyone—let alone your son or daughter—with a raised voice. And you may not like hearing this, but it’s your job to stop the fighting. You are the adult. You’ve got the mature brain, with better control over your emotions.

One way to do this is by prioritizing your relationship ahead of the small stuff. Think about it. What’s more important: having them clean their room, or being able to truly talk? Do you want to be right, or do you want to have a good relationship? And is this argument worth the relationship points this will cost? For example, when my daughter was in high school, my husband and I chose to be firm about her safety. That was the red line—the non-negotiable topic we stressed, over and over. And, as hard as it was, we forced ourselves to take a more relaxed attitude about other irritating, but less-crucial behaviours, chores, and so on.

Once you’ve managed to stop fighting, the next deceptively simple step is this: Try to be nice. When chatting, the Golden Rule will rarely fail you. Talk to your teen like it’s an actual conversation, not a lecture or dissertation. With your teenager, this is often easier said that done, so here are few techniques and strategies to help you get there.

  • Practice active listening
  • Don’t downplay what your teen is going through. You may know it’s not that important in life’s grand scheme, but it’s important to THEM
  • Respect their feelings
  • Encourage your teenager’s own perspective and ideas
  • Validate their ideas
  • Be reassuring. Let them know you are there, and show them you are listening, but don’t take over.
  • Adopt a curiosity perspective. That is, ask questions so you can better understand your child’s perspective

Communication truly is the key to every relationship—even the one you have with your teen. And it’s never too late to open those channels.

Thanks for reading and, as always, please feel free to reach out with questions about this or other mental health issues.

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