Communicating with Teenagers
'Good communication' is not the first term that is necessarily associated with teenagers! Slammed doors, shouting, grunting and arguments are perhaps more the norm.
But because of this, rather than in spite of it, it is important to think hard about how you communicate with teenagers.
Of course there may be specific topics that spring to mind when discussing communicating with teenagers. Examples include sex, drugs and alcohol. It is, however, almost more important to think about keeping communication going when you are not concerned about specific issues: on a day-to-day basis.
If you can achieve this, then communicating about ‘big things’ will be much easier.
Ten Tips for Communicating with the Teenagers
1. Give Them Opportunities
Rather than sit your teenager down for a formal talk, it’s better to keep communication channels open all the time.
Encourage them to help you prepare food, and chat as you do so, or make sure that you give them a lift to an activity once a week, to give you a bit of time to talk without pressure. Family mealtimes are also a good way to make sure that everyone is coming together for a chat on a regular basis.
We all like to be listened to, but many of us don’t take time to really listen to others.
If your teen wants to talk, take time to listen to what they are saying, and look at their body language too. Give them your full attention and it will pay dividends.
There is a lot more about effective listening on our listening skills pages.
3. Ask why, but don’t make judgements
Pointing out that a particular piece of behaviour was stupid is not the best start to a conversation.
Instead, it is best to assume that your teen had a reason for their actions, and ask them about it. It is important to keep an open mind about why they made that choice, and try to understand their thinking process.
Try to avoid making any judgements about them, and this will help them to avoid judging others.
4. Don’t assume or accuse
Just as with younger children, it is important not to assume that you know what is going on, or what has happened.
In particular, don’t ask leading questions. Instead, ask general questions such as “Will you tell me what’s been happening?”, or “I’m worried that you haven’t been quite your usual self. Is everything OK?”
There is more about this in our page on Questioning Skills.
5. Be there to help
All through their lives, you have been there to help, whether they are having trouble with homework, or difficulties at school or with friends. Why would you stop now?
Even though they are trying to establish their own identity, teenagers need to know that you are still there. Use questions such as:
- “Can I do anything to help?” or
- “Is there anything that you would like me to do?”
These types of questions make it clear that you are letting them decide if they want you to be involved.
This is particularly important if they are telling you about something like bullying. They may be anxious about telling you because of your possible reaction, so you need to make sure that what you do is helpful. You might, for example, say:
- “What I’d really like to do is x, do you think that would help?”
6. Don’t just tell, let them think things through
Most of us will probably recognise that we learn a whole lot more by making our own mistakes, and thinking things through for ourselves, than we do from being told what to do by someone else. Teenagers are exactly the same.
It is important, as the parent of a teenager, to have the confidence in them to believe that they can find their own solutions to their problems. Your role is to help them to think things through so that they can do that. This may be with you, or by themselves, but it is important that you give them the space to do so, and make clear that you are available for discussion if necessary.
A very good way to make sure that you’re enabling others to think things through for themselves is to make sure that you ask open-ended questions (that is, questions that do not have a yes/no answer). These often start with ‘How…?’ , ‘What….?’ or ‘Why…?’
It is also really powerful to remind them that you have confidence that they can do it. Don’t assume that they know you do, take time to tell them. It’s even stronger if you can tell them why. For example:
- “I know you can do this, because I have seen you do x before.”
- “I have every confidence that you can resolve this. Don’t forget, you managed y.”
7. “Do as I do, not just as I say”
You are still a role model for your children. Your children have been watching and copying what you do for years by the time they become teenagers.
If you want them to behave well, including not smoking or not drinking to excess, you need to make sure that your behaviour is appropriate too. It is not enough just to tell them.
8. Pick your battles
Some things are more important than others. Pick your battles so that you win the ones that really matter, and let the others go.
If all you do is criticise, your teen is less likely to be able to distinguish when you are seriously critical, as opposed to just a bit unenthusiastic. Instead, try to be positive about something: if you don’t like the shortness of the skirt, maybe praise its colour or the way that she has done her make-up.
9. Don’t react to anger with anger or hurt
Remember, you are the adult. As our page on Coping with Teenagers makes clear, it is important to remember this, and to model the behaviour that you want to see. It is hard to stay calm, but it is vital to do so.
If necessary, take yourself away, explaining why you are doing so. Return to the discussion later, when you are calm.
It is also important to remember that your teenager doesn’t really mean “I hate you, you’ve ruined my life!” What they mean is that they are upset, and you are there and can be shouted at. It may sound like it, but it’s not really personal, and you need to make sure that you don’t take it that way.
10. Avoid asking too many difficult questions
You don’t want your teen to lie to you.
Ideally, you would like them to feel able to talk to you about anything. But that may not be the case, especially if they are doing something that they know you think is wrong, or even actually illegal.
It is therefore better to avoid asking straight questions about difficult subjects, unless you are prepared for them to lie or avoid the question. Just keep asking open questions and keep the communication channels open. Hopefully, they will then come to you when they want to talk.
Sometimes questions are unavoidable
You may find that there are times when you need to ask difficult questions. If, for example, you find drugs or drug-taking equipment in your teenager’s room, you need to discuss it. In that case, it is better to take a straight approach, even though you still need to avoid making judgements.
Keep your approach as neutral as possible, and just ask them to talk to you about it. Use phrases like:
- “Please tell me what is happening” or
- “I’d like to know more about this.”
Teenagers are People Too
Remember, your teenager is a person, growing into an adult.
They are no longer a small child, and are likely to be abnormally sensitive about that. It is important to respect them and show that you do so, by giving them time and space to communicate with you.