Are you struggling with communication with your teenager? Do you have trouble getting them to open up or feel like they just withdraw when upset? Does every attempt to address a problem seem to blow up into a big argument? Here are seven things to try to keep in mind when communicating with teens.
Find the right time – Try to be aware of when your teen is the most receptive and responsive (e.g., in the car, during dinner, taking a walk together, or right before bed), and remember that talking with your teenager will be much more successful if you are not interrupting something or trying to have a conversation when they are tired or stressed. If you have something specific that needs to be addressed, consider telling your child that you need to talk with them and ask what would be a good time. Also keep in mind that neither you nor your child will be able to have a productive conversation if you are already very upset. If tempers have escalated, suggest a break, calm down, and then return to the conversation later.
Be truly present – Don’t let yourself be distracted by chores, work, or your phone if you want your teen to feel that you are really listening. Put everything else to the side, physically and mentally, and fully pay attention to what your teen is saying. Be aware of your eye contact and body language. Avoid mental distractions that get in the way of being present and listening, like assuming you know what they’re going to say, rehearsing and planning your own response, cataloging their past mistakes, or simply thinking about your other responsibilities.
Remain calm – Adolescents often tell me that they don’t want to tell their parents something because “they always overreact.” So whether your child is afraid that you will get angry and blow up or that you’ll get overly sad or anxious about their struggles, emotional intensity gets in the way of teens being open and honest. When adults are able to remain calm but empathetic, no matter what they are told, teens feel safer to be able to open up.
Be curious, but don’t interrogate – Asking a million questions seems to always have the effect of making a teen withdraw more or get defensive. To encourage communication, ask them how they’re doing and what’s been going on, but back off if they don’t want to talk. If your child has something important going on or has been struggling with a problem, check in to see how it’s going. Even if they aren’t willing to open up, the fact that you asked conveys that you care. If a problem has come to your attention, don’t assume that you have all the facts; ask your child to tell their side of what happened before you react. When your teen is willing to open up, be sure to express interest and curiosity about what they are sharing to encourage more.
Avoid labels and accusations – When talking to and about your teen, be sure to avoid negative labels like “you’re just lazy” or “that was a stupid choice” as this will make them feel defensive. No one wants to talk with someone that seems to expect the worst of them. Negative judgments will also discourage them from feeling that they are able to do better; people internalize the labels and judgments that they hear over time and come to believe that they are true. Adolescents and children are especially tuned in to critical judgments and negative comments, so aim for at least eight positive comments to every critical one.
Reflect and validate – To help a teen feel heard, first summarize and repeat back what you hear them saying and avoid adding your own assumptions or interpretations. Notice and name the emotions that they seem to be feeling. Express acceptance and compassion with how they are feeling, even if you think they are being too emotional or “overdramatic.” I often hear from teens that comments like “just get over it and try to be happy” or “other people have it worse than you” feel very invalidating and make it hard for them to open up to their parents about how they are feeling. By accepting what your child is feeling, you create a safe space for them to talk and keep them from having to act out or escalate to convince you that something is really wrong.
Offer to problem solve – In talking with your teen, never jump straight to advice giving. Sometimes they just want someone to listen. Teens also need to develop their own problem solving skills and feel empowered to be able to make their own decisions – soon they will have to do this on their own! After first listening and reflecting, you can ask your teen if they want some help with solving the problem or coming up with ideas. If the issue is related to school or discipline, consequences have their place, but mistakes often come from a place of the child lacking certain skills (e.g., organization, time management, handling peer pressure, or coping with emotions), and it’s more helpful in the long run to help your teen develop these skills, not just give a punishment.
Do you need some help learning to communicate with your teen, want some support in strengthening your relationship, or feel that your teen needs mental health services? Contact me today to schedule an initial session.