HOW 2 TALK 2 UR TEEN
Amber Goodloe, LPC
Adolescent & Adult Counselor
Note: I started this article before COVID-19 had massively changed the way the world looks, so it seems like now more than ever these thoughts could be helpful for those who are in various levels of lockdown with your families. In the midst of the stress and anxiety, I pray that this can be a time for connection with your teens in new and deeper ways that will carry forward as the world comes out of hiding.
I have been working with adolescents for around 15 years now as a counselor, volleyball coach, youth pastor, and various other roles, and one of the most common challenges I run into is difficulties in communication between parents and their teenage children. It is often rife with, “My mom just doesn’t get me!” and “I have no idea what to say to my son/daughter when they talk about things.” I’ve often had parents comment that they can’t believe the amount or type of information their kids will share with me and inevitably ask what they’re doing “wrong” that keeps their kids from opening up to them in the same way. First off, it’s important to remember that adolescence is a time when teens are exploring their independence and identity separate from their family, and it’s a natural phase of development to begin distancing from parents and seeking out others, both peers and adults, for a broader understanding of the world and their place in it. However, there are also some key ways parents can engage with their teens to help keep lines of communication open and to continue to be a safe place for teenagers to process their lives, questions, challenges, and joys. Some of what I will share may come very naturally to some, and to others it might seem like I’m asking you to fly to the moon, but I promise that if you are willing to dig in and be present with your teenage children you won’t regret it and all of you will be better for it.
Step 1: Be present and interested. You can’t talk to your kids if you aren’t there, and for teens this generally means that they need you to consistently be present to build trust and safety (so maybe some of what you start during isolation you can find ways to continue once it ends). Asking once a month how they’re doing will not be enough, nor can you build the trust necessary for real communication simply by sitting side by side while on your phones. Use times in the car or bus, commercial breaks, preparing for dinner, or other times you’re naturally together to just chat about whatever’s going on in their world – with their friends, at school, online, etc. This will pave the way for more meaningful conversations when the time comes.
Step 2: Be prepared. Don’t be shocked by what teens may share once they see that you are a safe person. Sometimes they might make shocking statements to scare you and see how you’ll respond, and it’s important that you don’t overreact in these moments. My favorite example of this is from a friend whose son came home one day and said, “Mom, my friend pierced his ear. Can I get mine pierced too??” Her initial internal reaction was, “Absolutely not! Just because your friend is doing something doesn’t mean you should too!” but instead she held that in and simply said “Tell me why you’d want to do that and we’ll see.” After a brief conversation her son said, “Just kidding, I don’t want to pierce my ear. I just wanted to see what you’d say.” From this seemingly small interaction her son learned that she was willing to engage with him on controversial topics and not panic, or give commands, rules, or lectures. Interactions like this allow for future conversations around bullying, dating, conflict with friends, LGBTQ topics and questions, pornography, depression, and the endless number of other topics teens are bombarded with on a daily basis. Whatever it is that your teen may bring up with you, the most important thing you can do is not overreact, but be willing to engage in the topic with them.
Step 3: Be quiet. Teens are not looking for someone to solve their problems, tell them what to do, or dismiss or minimize their experience. This requires that even if we feel like we know the best solution to their situation, we intentionally focus on listening and being available IF they ask for advice or help. The temptation as parents/adults can often be to just jump in with the answer and tell them what to do, but it’s crucial that you take time to really try to hear and understand what your teen is saying and experiencing before assuming you have the perfect answer. Their world is not our world, nor is it the same as the world we grew up in, so our first step of action needs to be to try and enter their world and see things through their eyes. Then and only then will we earn the right to share our perspective, insight, or wisdom.
Step 4: Be honest. After you’ve been quiet and listened, when you do open your mouth honesty is crucial. Teens can sense insincerity from a mile away, so if they can tell you’re talking to them because you “should” or that you don’t actually care about what’s going on in their lives, they will tune you out. They can also sense your discomfort and will keep their walls up, so if it’s a hard conversation just say that – “Wow, this is a bit uncomfortable but ok, let’s talk.” They also need you to be honest about what you think or feel about their situations, without telling them what to do. It’s ok to say, “That’s not how I would do that, but why do you feel that’s best?” or, “It’s really hard for me to hear you say that, but I want to understand what you mean.” I was talking with a mom once whose daughter was struggling in significant ways and she didn’t know how to bring it up with her, but shared with me her concerns and I encouraged her to ask exactly those same questions to her daughter – “What’s going on? Why are you feeling that way? What would help?” It’s also good to remember that adolescence is a time to learn how to think through things and make wise decisions, so even more than giving answers or telling them what to do, consider helping your teen figure it out on their own and then be responsible for the effects of their choices.
Step 5: Be willing to apologize. One of the single greatest ways to enhance your relationship with your teen (or anyone else in your life, really) is being willing to apologize when you mess up. We are not perfect and as parents you will make mistakes, say things that are hurtful, and dismiss your teen’s issues. In those moments the humility of going to them, acknowledging this, and asking forgiveness will not only build huge trust in this relationship; it also sets an example of how to handle the mistakes they too will inevitably make.
Bonus Step – Take time to learn what’s going on in teenage culture today – both as a way to connect and as a way to help keep your family safe. There is so much hurt and danger that can be present online, but there are also fun and encouraging things that you and your teen can connect over: Instagram. TikTok. SnapChat. Abbrevs. The list goes on and on and is ever changing as to what’s most popular. But being diligent to ask them what’s “cool” these days or to even google it will give you so much leverage for conversation. If they throw a word at you and you know what it means it just might take away their ability to think “yep, Dad’s just old. He doesn’t get it.” However, just a warning. If you try to use some of the slang (for starters click here) they might then roll their eyes and laugh at you and remind you you’re waaaay too old to be talking like that. But hey – laugher is connection! J
So, whether in lockdown or when life returns to “normal,” I hope these are some helpful ideas for you in your desire to find ways to engage with your teenage kids. Teens are some of my favorite people on earth with their energy, creative ideas, ability to learn and change, and just being downright entertaining. However, I also know it can be an incredibly challenging season in parenting and in life as they (and you) are facing so many new challenges and questions. So as always, if in these conversations you discover your teen is really struggling and needs more help than you know how to give, please reach out to a counselor or someone who can help you figure out what they need or how to help them.