Knowing how to talk with your teen isn’t always clear. At times, it can feel like they’ve been tasked with keeping state secrets from you at all costs – and while it’s never that serious, it’s important to point out that this secrecy isn’t unusual. As children develop into adults, they go through staggered stages of self-discovery.
They are undergoing rapid changes, changes that are difficult to cope with and are often a source of embarrassment and confusion. Furthermore, teens experience a strong drive towards independence – all while still heavily relying on you, the parent, as a source of guidance, comfort, and safety.
This can be confusing for parents, too, because their child might be attentive and clingy one year and begin to pull away and seek solitude the next. It can be difficult to feel like you’re really doing your job as a parent when your teen isn’t talking to you.
Not all hope is lost. While long and meaningful conversations with your teen might be harder to come by, you shouldn’t give up on them either. Teens will pull away, but remember that they’re young, confused, and willful. It’s often on you to help rebuild the bridge towards understanding, provide avenues for communication, and make it clear – time and time again – that you’re someone your teen can trust and come to for guidance no matter what.
In this article, you will discover how to talk with your teen about life.
Take a Deep Breath and Relax
Parents often react in one of two extremes when their teen stops talking to them: they pester, or they ignore. Parents who tend towards the former will want to know everything, one way or the other, even if it means invalidating their teen’s privacy or becoming overbearing. Parents who tend towards the latter will become less involved in their teen’s life, to their teen’s detriment. They might not even realize it when their teen is going through a hard time at school, is starting a new relationship, or is having trouble with their friends.
If your teen is beginning to pull away from you – or has been for some time – take a deep breath and avoid reacting instinctively. It’s important to approach this as an adult, and to understand what your teen might need, as well as how you can get them to come to you. Let’s start with the most obvious question.
Why Are Teens Like This?
It’s not really your fault. Nor is it theirs. The teenage brain tends towards independence, and feelings of “leaving the nest”, especially on a social level. They’re neurologically encouraged to focus on peer relationships – to make friends.
And because of the complexities of adulthood, being a teen comes with a lot of unfamiliar and scary territory. Things they’re too embarrassed to talk about; things that, depending on the culture and social context, might even stir feelings of guilt and shame.
In addition to independence, these awkward thoughts and volatile emotions can lead to strained dialogue and poor communication, especially with a short-tempered parent. If you’ve reacted negatively in the past (getting into shouting matches, starting every conversation with a judgment, berating your teen too often) talking with you becomes associated with negative experiences, eroding your parent-teen relationship.
Ease Into Conversation Naturally
A lot of parents make the mistake of announcing their intentions when they want to go beyond small talk. Teens are smart enough to pick up on your language tells and will inadvertently shut down or prepare to ignore you whenever you give the cue that you want to “talk”. Of course, most parents get ticked off by this – which turns an attempt at dialogue into a one-sided argument.
Don’t try to force your teen into meaningful conversations. Start with the small talk. Or, just start with hanging out around your teen more often.
For example, if they’re in the kitchen making themselves a sandwich, ask if you can hang out in the kitchen with them while they’re grabbing a bite to eat. Then, ask innocuous questions about mutual interests, friends, or what they’ve been up to. Once your teen gets into the flow of the conversation, it’s easier to start asking the right questions.
Ask the Right Questions
It’s not particularly difficult to identify what a teen has been doing wrong lately. It’s also very easy to walk up to your child and tell them off for playing too many video games, for staying up too late, for studying at the last minute again, or for not doing the dishes.
Generally speaking, teens are also aware that all of these things are things they shouldn’t be doing, and you telling them off doesn’t help you deal with your frustration, nor help them address their priorities, or solve the problem.
If your teen is lagging behind at school, start off by asking them about school. Ask them how their preparations for the midterms have been going. If they reveal that they haven’t really started on them, ask if they’d like some help – or if they’ve put some thought towards how they’re going to start preparing. Get them to tell you what they know to be the right answer, and encourage them to act on their own agency to do that – instead of just telling them to do it.
It’s something parents hear time and time again, but it is really important for successful parent-teen communication, no matter how hard it might be sometimes.
Passing judgment is very easy, yet it’s never helpful. We need to remind ourselves that teenagers don’t think the way adults do, and they have a harder time envisioning long-term consequences, or caring about risk.
They know what they should be doing, but that doesn’t help that they don’t want to do it. Your job isn’t to point out the obvious, but to help them figure out ways to cope with their responsibilities, develop systems and schedules that might help them juggle what they must do with what they want to do, and reward their discipline.
Teens Still Need Their Parents
Another mistake parents make is thinking that they’re just not that important anymore. While it might feel that way, it’s not the truth.
Research shows that parental influence does not wane until a teen leaves the family home, and even if teens are naturally inclined to spend more time with their peers, parental influence is still stronger than peer influence for most of a teen’s decisions.
This goes both ways – a poor parent-teen relationship correlates strongly with worse outcomes in life, including a higher risk of mental health problems and substance use.
While your teen might not want to admit it, you’re an important part of their life, and they continue to look up to you or refer to your past actions and behaviors as a moral compass. While it’s impossible to keep being a superhero in your child’s eyes, this does highlight the importance of continuing to model the kind of behavior you want to see in your teen – in other words, it’s not enough to want your child to be better than you. You have to be better for them, too.