Teen Talk: 5 Communication Tips for Parents

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Because the cobbler’s child may not have shoes, it should be of no surprise that my children are not always the beneficiaries of my psychological knowledge and skills. My husband’s recent exchange with our daughter reminded me of the many botched conversations I’ve had with my children over the years.

Two evenings ago, our daughter’s typically closed bedroom door was ajar. She was sitting on her bed and the Friends theme song emanated from her laptop. Assuming that he was not interrupting her nightly pre-calculus hell, my husband seized the moment he’d been waiting for. He respectfully knocked on the door, walked into her room and said, “Hey! So, Mom and I want to talk with you about something. . . .”

The moment the words left his mouth, her eyes began to roll. She knew full well that this preface would not lead to, “ . . . and we wanted you to give you an unlimited Urban Outfitter’s credit card,” or “We’ve purchased box seat tickets for you and five friends to see Beyoncé.”

Barely raising her head from her computer, she inhaled deeply, gritted her teeth, and feigned interest. “What?” she murmured, barely hiding her annoyance.

My husband launched into the well-prepared points he and I had discussed several nights prior:

“Mom and I know what an intense school year this will be, and we’ve both found that physical exercise is a great stress reliever. It takes your mind off of things, helps with creativity, and shakes up your brain chemistry. It’s an important part of staying healthy. Since you stopped taking dance classes, you don’t have a physical outlet for all the pressure you’re under. Mom and I think that you should take a yoga class a couple days a week, or register for an informal dance class, or blah, blah blah (insert the sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice here).

“Great,” she groaned looking back down at her screen. “Another thing I should be doing, but don’t have time to do. Can we talk about this later?”

“But this will help with your schoolwork . . . ”

It was too late. The emotional door had slammed shut.

My heart sank as my husband returned from his “talk” mildly dejected, frustrated and powerless. Unfortunately, his expertise in devising persuasive legal arguments was not even remotely effective with his daughter. Instead, his well-intended presentation to promote positive health quickly devolved into a game of, “Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” Even with my years of facilitating “Communication with Teens” seminars, I assured him that I wouldn’t have had much more success.

If you want to prevent a dead stop of communication between you and your teen, try this:

  1. Talk less. Listen more. Think of your talks with your teen as planting seeds, rather than flooding them with information. Launching into a prepared monologue on the health benefits of exercise and what we think she should do, invited immediate rejection. Instead, we could have approached the topic in smaller chunks at different times.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. This is a reversal on past advice when parents were encouraged to ask specific questions like, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” rather than, “How was school?” Teens need to opine. They are full of opinions, perspectives and ideas, many of which will be different than yours. Give them the opportunity to talk and express their point of view. Be an engaged and interested listener who wants to hear their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Follow their lead and validate along the way. Try not to impose your agenda on your teen. For example, my husband or I could have waited until our daughter brought up feeling exhausted, or resentful about schoolwork to talk about how exercise can relieve stress. Validate your teen’s frustrations (e.g. “You’re working really hard. You must be tired.”) and offer questions that might lead them to their own solution (e.g. “What do you think would help you feel less stressed?”).
  4. Talk side-by-side: Face-to-face is harder. Particularly when prefaced with, “I have something I want to talk to you about . . .” Use life’s moments as informal springboards. Integrate your suggestions and ideas into other conversations. For example, when we passed by the ballet school on one of our walks around the neighborhood, my husband or I could have asked, “How are you feeling about your decision to take a break from dance?”
  5. Practice Collaborative Problem Solving: Respect your child’s emotional and cognitive development. At this stage, teens shouldn’t be blindly following our instructions. Their primary task is to separate from us emotionally and develop an identity of their own. We shouldn’t expect immediate receptivity or acceptance of our ideas and suggestions. Don’t encourage them to think for themselves, and then be annoyed when they do so.

Not every topic requires this methodical approach, but these are useful tools to draw on during the teen years. I hope they’ll bring you many fruitful walks with your child while you listen and plant seeds.

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  • Marcia Feldheim

    Wish I had learned these tips when I was raising my children 50 plus years ago. They would have helped my youngest daughter grow into her successful person without being angry and resentful of me.

  • Julie Lichtstein

    A psychotherapist friend just passed your info on as I am looking for a therapist for my stressed out daughter, who is, no surprise, in the hell that is junior year. The “parenting paradox” is real and brilliant, and I have loved reading your blog posts. They reflect so much of what is happening in our home. Because your work seems to focus predominantly on school-related anxiety, I am not sure about referring my daughter as she is grappling with a number of issues (as all teens are), but perhaps I should consider. Can you let me know where your office is, and about your fee schedule? And, regardless, thank you for what you offer here.

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