How to Talk With Teens

In my work with families, parents, and teens themselves–a BIG question repeatedly asked is about strengthening one’s relationship to a pre-teen or teenage child. Many parents feel hindered or blocked in their approach. They want to reach out but feel rejected or rebuffed by their child. Here are some simple suggestions and considerations that might help you to tailor your approach and possibly reframe your expectations related to their ability to relate.

First, it is important to recognize that the human brain takes about 26 years to fully develop. Thus, your teen is in the midbrain at this point in development. They are very emotional and though they may see themselves as knowing all, they have limited scope and tend to be very reactive. They may seem capable of mature thought and choices and then in the next moment, the brain seems to go off line. This is normal and part of brain development. The inconsistency is part of their developmental phase, not intentional misbehavior. It is frustrating as sometimes you may be interfacing with a seemingly more adult entity and in other moments, a toddler. Take a deep breath and double check your expectations. Check in with your expectations of how your child ‘should’ be acting and what their brains are capable of. It may soften your emotional response and help you choose how to navigate the moment in a more informed manner.

Another pattern I note is parents often try to engage teens in mature conversation and on a level that has more meaning to the parent. This often does not yield favorable results. Parents may be, with the greatest intent, attempting to engage their teens on topics of life that ARE important, but just not to the teen. Thus, parents may experience eye rolls, dismissive or avoidant responses, and feel hurt and confused by these responses. I always encourage parents to talk with a teen and connect with their child in a manner that is meaningful to the child, not to the parent. This is how you can build that rapport and cultivate the teen’s sense of being heard which is critical to that age. Another reminder is that your teen’s social world is for many, EVERYTHING. They tend to become consumed by what others think of them. Attempting to highlight their uniqueness differences and coaching to not care about other’s opinions will only land upon deaf ears. They do not reside in that emotional space. Blending into their social group is their focus as they believe that means they are accepted. They want to be accepted and liked by peers. Feeling ostracized by peers is hugely painful to them. Honor that that will likely fade with age but offering resolutions contrary to their need will not be helpful. You are offering an adult solution to a child situation.

I tend to view teens as having one foot in pseudo-adulthood and one in childhood. They seem to move between the two states and respond differently to parents depending on their mood or mindset. Teens are trying to develop and assert their independence. However, they need their parents just as much as they did as a young child. The difference is most will rebuff such efforts. Often, parents feel hurt or try to accommodate this by allowing for more space. I usually encourage the following: Hug your teen, express your love, cuddle them, compliment them, offer to spend quality time with them. They may seemingly reject you. Even if it hurts, keep doing it. They need to see these gestures and hear those words. Envision it like planting seeds. Those positive words might be rebuffed but tend to have an emotional impact. Also, they might start to become the (positive) internal narrative in their heads. Even if they reject your offering of affection or time, they feel loved by the gesture.

Envision that all these gestures and your attempts to connect, daily, with your teen lay a foundation or a path of connection and communication. They might not walk down that path each day but it’s existence is critical. If a teen knows they can approach a parent and feel heard, they will utilize that path at critical times. This is one of the most important things. As a counselor, this is the life line. When a teen falls into trouble or stress, does not feel like they can approach their parent, cultivates a situation that alarms me as a provider. It is dangerous territory for a person to feel despaired and alone in that angst.

Some considerations to improve your connection and relationship with a teen:

  • Avoid open-ended questions (e.g. How was school, how are you feeling?). You will likely get a repetitive, perfunctory one word response such as “FINE”. Instead, ask more specific questions such as “What is one thing that made you laugh today? What was the most stressful or frustrating thing that happened at school?” You are more likely to get a descriptive response. It might not be as much as you prefer but it will offer up more details.
  • Engage your teens in talk about what THEY like (sports, video games, friends, etc). Parents often attempt to have in-depth emotional and coaching conversations about life and teens aren’t as invested in those. I encourage those to happen but make an effort to relate to your teen about THEIR interests. Parents feel it is not enough but you have to understand that is where you child is and that is what is important to them. You demonstrating interest in that only makes them feel heard, understood and LOVED.
  • Learn to validate the emotions, not matter how irrational you believe them to be. I sometimes see teens as being similar to toddlers. They can erupt emotionally over what appears to us adults as silly things. Teens are seeking understanding and are starting to define their identity. They often complain about not being heard or understood by adults “You don’t get it!” . One way to correct is to listen, and validate that you understand their feelings (eg. I can see how that would be stressful). Listen and validate several times with no ‘but’ attach. Don’t try to rationalize how they should feel or think differently or it will only incite conflict. Your teen will feel connected to you if you validate them first and be more inclined, later in the conversation, to discuss problem solving options.
  • When faced with a stressor or struggle, engage your teen by asking questions on how they are considering to solve the issue. This cultivates a sense of trust and respect in them. Avoid just offering solutions. One, it is important that they practice this skill and develop this part of their brain. Secondly, they may surprise you and offer a solution that you were considering yourself. Lastly, if they thought of it, they are more likely to follow through with enacting it and feel more self-confidence as a result.
  • Demonstrate an interest in cultivating your relationship to them. ASK for feedback on how they can feel most loved by you. Do not assume you know what they need. Sometimes, teens really miss small activities or gestures and asking them gives them an outlet to possibly voice this to you. You can create opportunities for teens to give feedback but please note, they may not always choose to. Do not let that discourage this process as I think it is important on many levels.
  • Reflect balanced feedback. We forget to compliment our kids and often are managing annoying or stressful behaviors. Try to gain balance by reflecting, DAILY, appreciation for anything they did or who they are. Examples: “Thought was really thoughtful of you to….. I really adore your great sense of humor…..I like how considerate you are….etc etc”. Do not be discouraged by scoffing or non-responses–they heard you.
  • Attend to any signs of distress. I get it, this could seem like a daily event but remember, it is typical of that age group. Again, avoid the open ended questions. Lead with observations such as “You seem really tired today”. “You seem sad”. “You seem really worried and distracted lately”. You might get a dismissive response but don’t be discouraged. Lean in a bit more. If you notice they seem to get physically restless or agitated, it means you are ON TRACK and hitting that raw nerve. Often, I will pace a teen and do several rounds of reflection and suddenly, a well of emotion bursts through that they have been trying to hide or push down. Practice listening to understand v. listening to respond. Sit in that emotional space with them without trying to say or do things to make them feel differently. Just listening will help the teen to move him/herself out of that emotional space.

Every teen is unique and may respond differently to the suggestions. Sometimes it is trial and error to determine what works best with each child. There are many books available and if ever feeling discouraged, seeking out consult with a therapist can be helpful. I have hosted numerous parenting sessions to be supportive, not judgemental, and help the parent identify strategies to enhance their parent-child relationship. It is more skill focused and about enhancement–not ‘correcting’ or a sign of poor parenting. I truly advocate that parents willing to engage in self-reflection and seek out information on how to alter their approach. I have observed how this can completely change the emotional overtone at a home, with small tweaks in approach, and really impact the quality of that relationship in a positive manner.

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