Learning how to effectively communicate with adolescents can be challenging, even for the most seasoned and skilled parents. Now more than ever, parents may find themselves wanting to check in with their teens about what’s going on in the world, and how they’re being affected.
What’s the right thing to say? How can parents know if something is wrong and their teens need more support when they won’t open up?
As a Licensed Psychotherapist who works with family and adolescents, I’ve witnessed the frustration first-hand when both parties are trying to communicate but keep getting stuck because they’re talking at each other, not to each other. However, it’s possible for parents to free themselves from these unproductive communication patterns that take root in families.
I’d like to share six practical tips that are helpful in building more positive and consistent communication.
1. Take the Pressure Off
At times, it may seem like your teen loves to be the center of attention. This is usually not the case when it comes to talking about feelings with mom and dad. If candid conversations about feelings are uncommon in your household, teens may be more likely to shut down or close off when approached. They may feel under scrutiny, unsure of how to respond, or what emotions will be accepted. Some may even be fearful of getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing.
There is always room for side conversation, and this may be a non-threatening opportunity to have a heart-to-heart with your teen.
To remove some of this perceived pressure, try engaging in neutral activities with your teens before initiating the conversations. For example, playing games. This is something light hearted and typically the players’ attention is focused on the game at hand. However, there is always side conversation, and this may be a non-threatening opportunity to have a heart-to-heart with your teen.
They likely won’t feel the same pressure as they have something to look at and focus on; it can feel like just another topic of conversation, opposed to a more formal sit-down discussion that has the potential to feel like an interrogation. Besides playing games, you can try cooking, baking, going for a walk, anything that you and your teen enjoy doing together.
Besides playing games, you can try cooking, baking, going for a walk, anything that you and your teen enjoy doing together, to support communication.
2. Validate Their Inner Experience
Validation does not mean blindly agreeing with everything your teen says. Validating is the act of reflecting back to another person that you hear and recognize their thoughts and feelings. For most people, validation doesn’t come naturally to us.
Our tendency as humans is to jump into problem solving mode or reassure the other person that things will be okay.
Our tendency as humans is to jump into problem solving mode or reassure the other person that things will be okay. After all, we don’t like to see our loved ones struggle or suffer. However, responding in these ways can oftentimes feel dismissive, and make us feel like we’re not truly being heard. This can be especially true for our teens who may already struggle to express their inner experiences as they grapple with challenges for the first time.
For example, if your teen is expressing to you that they’re sad over a breakup, or worried about a difficult exam coming up, start with validating their feelings by saying something like “That does sound difficult” or “I understand why this would make you feel sad.”
Of course, we may eventually get to the problem solving – and that’s great. But remember not to skip the step of validating first. This helps teens feel heard and makes them more likely to open up about feelings again in the future if they know you’re truly willing to lend an ear.
3. Empathize, Especially the Small Stuff
Empathy goes hand in-hand with validation. To empathize with your teen is to try to truly understand their feelings from their unique perspective. At times, this can be difficult. When you’re working a full time job, managing a household, and dealing with countless other life stressors, your teen’s problems may seem superficial by comparison. Resist judging your teens experiences and emotions.
Instead, challenge this thinking, and remember that although an issue may seem insignificant to you – it IS quite significant to them! Try to put yourself in their shoes and try to remember when you were their age and how similar issues likely felt like the end of the world. Empathizing with your teens (or with anyone for that matter) makes them feel heard and understood, and oftentimes will make them much more likely to confide in you about more significant problems when it really counts.
Try to put yourself in their shoes and try to remember when you were their age and how similar issues likely felt like the end of the world.
By controlling our response and approaching the situation in a calm manner, we’re less likely to miss out on meaningful conversations.
4. Take Time Outs When Needed
If your teen does something which causes you to feel upset or angry, it’s natural to want to react in the moment. However, by controlling our response and approaching the situation in a calm manner, we’re less likely to miss out on meaningful conversations. This is a lot easier said than done of course, so when this happens, try to count to ten or take some deep breaths. If that isn’t enough, table the conversations for later and take a break!
Not only will this improve your communication with your teen, but it models good communication skills for them to use with others. When we react in the moment we may be reacting strictly from our emotions, without time to process the issue logically. When we do this, we’re also less likely to get our point across in a way that will be heard. Yelling at your teen may cause them to become defensive, shut down, and not hear us. If you’re used to communicating this way and haven’t gotten the results you’re expecting, try something new.
Having important conversations when we are calm builds understanding and fosters cooperation instead of resentment, while encouraging a dialogue that’s two-sided.
You can set rules, guidelines, and appropriate punishments for your household while sharing the reasons for these rules. Having these important conversations when the family is calm builds understanding and fosters cooperation instead of resentment, while encouraging a dialogue that’s two-sided. This also has potential to create a stronger relationship between parents and their children where both parties feel more able to open up and share.
5. Model Appropriate Communication and Emotion Sharing
It’s OK to be vulnerable with your kids. If they see you admit that things are impacting you and you are experiencing some negative emotions, they may feel more comfortable doing the same. Oftentimes, if we’ve learned from a young age that we shouldn’t express negative emotions, or only our positive emotions are valid, we unconsciously stuff all negative feelings deep within ourselves. This can make identifying our feelings or even honoring our own experiences difficult as adults.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we want to bombard our kids with our feelings and lean on them for support. However we should try to share and open up a reciprocal relationship. This can look something like sitting at the dinner table and sharing “that news article really made me sad today” or “it’s been difficult watching all of these stories in the media.” Not only does this show the rest of the family that it’s ok to discuss our feelings, it can open up a dialogue about how these events are impacting them as well.
Sharing your own feelings about news and media with your teen can show the family that it’s ok to discuss our feelings and can help open up a dialogue.
6. Provide Autonomy
If your teen doesn’t want to talk to you about these things, remind yourself that it is both normal and OK. It does not mean you are a bad parent or have a bad relationship. Think of your teenage years, how much did you really want to share with your mom and dad? We can use all of the right tools and tricks, but if they’re not ready for an open conversation, we shouldn’t force it.
Continue to remind your teen that when they are ready, you’re here to listen.
Continue to remind your teen that when they are ready, you’re here to listen to them. If your efforts to engage your teen in these conversations continue to fall on deaf ears, that’s okay. In this case, you can provide them the freedom to speak with someone else.
Encourage them to reach out to a trusted loved one, perhaps an aunt or uncle, and assure them that this can be a safe space and what they say will not be relayed back to the family. Alternatively, provide them some resources for support, for example, the opportunity to meet with a trusted school guidance counselor or with a therapist.
As difficult as it may be, try not to take their silence personally or force a discussion if things feel strained. Empower your child to feel supported in the way that meets their needs.
The Bottom Line on Communication
In an age where our teens prefer communicating through Snapchat and TikTok dances than around the dinner table, trying to have meaningful conversations and encouraging consistent communication can be increasingly difficult. These six tips are the first steps towards trying to create a more open environment within your home for these more heavy conversations to be had.
Remember to be patient with yourself and with your teens! There is no one-size-fits-all model for parenting.
Remember to be patient with yourself and with your teens! There is no one-size-fits-all model for parenting. Continue to take the temperature on how your communication with your teen is going and adjust if changes need to be made.
Even communicating with your teens about your communication patterns can be useful. Ask them how they would prefer to have these conversations, and give it a try. The best we can do is be there for our teens and let them know that when they are ready to talk, we’re ready to lend an ear.
Your Turn: What have been your successful moments? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments below.