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Communicating with Your Teen

What causes communication problems?

Teens struggle with hormones, peer pressure, the need for independence, and trying to figure out who they are. They need to learn to make their own decisions. But they are still learning how to make good decisions.

Parents struggle with which issues are worth fighting about, what kind of discipline works, and how to help the teen learn to make good decisions.

The child who once talked a mile a minute and asked a million questions now gripes, groans, and says only "I dunno," "Whatever," "No," and "Yeah." Even though teens may not act like it, they need their parents' love, reassurance, guidance, and advice. So how does a parent get through to a teen? Here are some tips:

Show respect.

One way to start is to show respect for your teen. Respect their privacy in their phone calls, mail, and need for private space at times. Respect their ability to make decisions. Do not act as if your teen's worries are unimportant. If you do, you will look as if you don't think their feelings matter. They need your approval, even though they'd never admit to it.

When it seems your child is sullen, it may be that he or she lacks confidence to express things in the right way. Help your child build confidence and self-esteem by setting goals that are realistic. Encourage them to help others. Feeling like you are making a difference is a great self-esteem builder.

Spend time together.

Teens whose parents know who their friends are and what they do in their free time are less likely to get into trouble than their peers. If you spend time doing things with your teen, you are more likely to come across as caring rather than meddling.

Take part in activities that encourage conversation, such as hobbies, games, and school events. Spend one on one time with your teen. Go out for coffee or watch a movie together. Suggest doing things that you both enjoy. Dinnertime is great time to talk about your day and ask your teen about his or her day. Show an interest in what they are saying.

Ask questions.

Talk "with" not "at" your teen. Use open questions that don't just need a yes/no response. For example, "How did practice go today?" rather than "Did you have a good day?"

If your teen seems upset, don't let them stew. Try to get them to talk about it. Some teens have a hard time talking about anger and upset feelings. Try to start a conversation by saying "I can see you've been upset. Let's talk about what's happening."

Listen.

Good communication with your teen needs to include listening, as well as talking. Show that you are interested when your teen tells you things, by using body language and eye contact. Let your teen know that they have your attention. Stop what you are doing to listen, if you can. Let teens know you will try to understand their point of view without putting them down or trying to control them. Being open-minded can be hard for parents. Guard against nagging or getting angry.

Listen and reflect back what you hear. For example: "So, you're feeling really stressed by school right now?" Look beyond the words and really hear what your teen is saying. Don't overreact or fly off the handle if you don't like what you hear.

Notice which issues are not being talked about and have the courage to talk about those issues.

Watch your timing.

Try to catch your teen at a time when he or she is relaxed. For example, driving somewhere together often leads to great conversations. When your teen is rushing to get ready for a night out, you are not likely to have a good heart-to-heart.

Be patient.

Understand that language, music, and clothes will be different than what you are used to, and probably different that what you would like. The purple hair and nose ring will probably not last forever. Keep your sense of humor.

Set standards.

Although they may protest loudly, having parents set firm boundaries is reassuring to teens. It helps to include teens in setting rules. Helping to set the rules may not keep teens from breaking them, but it can help parents to avoid a power struggle. Teens can't claim that standards or punishments are unfair.

Be aware that you are still your child's role model. Watch your use of alcohol, daily diet, exercise, and how you manage your anger. Show your teen that when you make a mistake, you can say “I’m sorry”, and expect them to do the same. Be honest and expect that your teen will be honest too.

Pick your battles.

Teenagers face pressures and temptations about alcohol, drugs, sex, tobacco, guns, and violence. Stand firm on issues that may be harmful to your child, but pick your battles. A messy room may not be the most important issue facing your child. When you are upset or frustrated, it may not be the most effective time to address issues with your teen.

Try to bring up issues during day-to-day activities. For example, you could talk about drinking when you see a newspaper story about drunken driving. You could discuss violence and ways to solve problems after watching a violent TV show or movie.

Brainstorm with your teen for ways that he or she might handle tough situations, and ways you can support your child. For example: "If you find yourself at a home where kids are drinking, call me and I'll pick you up — and there will be no scolding or punishment." The more prepared your teen is, the better able he or she will be to handle high-pressure situations.

Let your child know that you love them no matter what. Make it clear that you can disagree without either one of you being “wrong”. This does not mean that you accept or approve of everything that your teen does. If it's for the right reason, saying "NO" to your teen is an act of love.

The best you can do is let teens know that you are there to guide, listen, and support them. Tell them what your concerns are. Get professional help for teens who hurt themselves, abuse drugs or alcohol, or make suicidal or homicidal threats.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-03-14
Last reviewed: 2012-03-12
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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