Talking with teens

mother and teen daughter
Take time to ask about fears, interests, challenges or anything else your teen would like to talk about.

Posted Nov. 2, 2011

By Daniel Martineau, M.D.

Anyone who has lived with a teen knows how tough it can be to talk with one.

Adolescence is a time of self-doubt, intense emotions and difficult choices. Most parents are eager to help their sons and daughters negotiate the hurdles of growing up. But while parents are well aware of the importance of keeping the lines of communication open, they often feel bewildered as to how to proceed.

Dr. Martineau is an adolescent medicine specialist and pediatrician at UC Davis.

Teens are notorious for shutting parents out and responding in one-syllable words when pressed. A certain amount of withdrawal from parents is normal while teens struggle to achieve independence and grow into adulthood.

Yet teens need to know their parents are there for them. They still need guidance and emotional support as they develop their new sense of self.

Keeping a conversation going

Here are some tips on how to tap into teen communication lines and keep a conversation going. Many of these suggestions, although apparently simple, take some practice.

  • Quality time cannot occur without making time available. Parents with busy schedules (and who doesn’t have one?) may need to plan regular times to have conversations with teens. Consider having a meal out, taking walks together or playing a game every week.
  • Talk to teens on their own terms. Most family conversations focus on reminders about chores, schoolwork or upcoming family plans. This leaves little room for nonjudgmental discussions of what is really on your teen’s mind.  Take time to ask about fears, interests, challenges or anything else he or she would like to talk about.
  • Listen, listen, listen. So often we rush to give our opinions and guidance, and what is really needed is an engaged ear.
  • Help teenagers find words for the emotions they are experiencing. A comment such as “you are really angry (disappointed, proud, frustrated)” indicates understanding and can be very reassuring, even when the feelings are painful and intense.

Sometimes such techniques are enough for teens to independently work out solutions to whatever is on their minds. It takes discipline to hold back advice, prodding questions or words of sympathy. But it is surprising how often just listening and clarifying our children’s feelings are what they often need most.

Many teen issues, such as those surrounding dating, sex, drugs, curfews and driving privileges, test our communication skills to the utmost. If possible, have such discussions at times other than during the heat of the moment.

Effective reminders about responsibilities

There are times when we are less interested in teenagers’ feelings than in getting them to handle their responsibilities. Usually the less said, the better, but be clear about your expectations. “Please pick up your clothes in the bathroom” is more effective than a lecture on how this is the 20th time this week you have given this reminder.

Trimming it down even further to one word by calling out “bathroom!” is often enough. Sometimes, a written note is a light alternative, such as one on the bathroom door that says “clean me up before dinner!”

Many teen issues, including those surrounding dating, sex, drugs, curfews and driving, test our communication skills to the utmost. If possible, have such discussions at times other than during the heat of the moment. During a crisis, it is often best to limit ourselves to stating our feelings (such as “I feel really angry”) and to any necessary, immediate action (such as “your friends must go home now”). Postpone a lengthier discussion until tempers have cooled.

Understand that open communication with your teen about these behaviors does not preclude restrictions. Make sure your teen understands that privileges are tied to their responsible behavior. Remember that parents communicate “loudest” as role models. And don’t forget to compliment them often.

Parents may consider softening a very authoritarian stance; teens may regard rules more if they feel they have had some input.

A discussion, not a lecture

Even when discussing weighty issues, remember the simple skills of listening and helping to put a name to feelings. And don’t forget to limit your lecture. Instead, let the teen know your feelings, too. “I am worried that there will be alcohol at this party” is clear and nonjudgmental. After both points of view have been clearly expressed, discuss possible solutions to conflict and try to mutually reach an agreement.

Parents have every right to say what they will permit, provided they understand what their teen is requesting before they say "no." Parents may consider softening a very authoritarian stance; teens may regard rules more if they feel they have had some input.

Sometimes a solution can’t be found to satisfy both parties. In such cases, agree to discuss the matter further in a few days, when other ideas may arise. Until then, be clear about family rules and consequences. At all times, children should understand the limits of acceptable behavior.

Effective communication takes practice. And even the best techniques don’t always work. Keep trying. Good communication is our best hope for letting teenagers know we are available to help them to make good choices.