How to Talk to Your Teen

The teen years are notorious for parent-child conflict, especially around communication. It can be disheartening for parents (and teens), but when puberty comes along, many kids start pushing mom and dad—who are suddenly "weird," "embarrassing," "annoying," or just too "old"—away. Simple conversations can suddenly feel strained and heart-to-hearts become few and far between.

Overview

All is not lost—and you're not alone in this very common, age appropriate struggle. You just may need to rediscover or reinvent how to talk to your teen. In fact, studies show that many parents lack these needed skills and not offered much guidance in how to bridge the rapidly expanding dialogue gap.

While it might be hard to always see them, trust that your silly, smart, caring, communicative, sweet kid, who used to think hanging out and chatting with you was a treat, is still in there. Your connection isn't broken, but it may be a bit frayed at the edges—and in need of a jumpstart.

Below, we explore why talking with teens can become so distressing, and most importantly, how to turn things around. From tips on general connecting and keeping your relationship positive and healthy to how to have conversations that no one will storm away from, we've got you covered.

Why Talking Gets Hard

"She hates me," "they barely say two words to me," "all I get are grunts," and "he doesn't want anything to do with me" are common phrases from parents of teens everywhere. And in case the parent might think they are overreacting or wrong about a growing disconnect, many teens will utter those dreaded, explicit words, "I hate you," "go away," or "I don't want to talk to you." Or simply offer silence.

Coming Into Their Own

We all know that the process of childhood ideally ends with a fully functioning adult. What we don't often think of is that for this to happen, teens need to create their own separate lives and leave the nest, which understandably can create some miscommunication and conflict.

Parents may have certain expectations or plans for their teens that don't always match what the teen envisions, and vice versa. Parents also may have trouble seeing that their teen is no longer a little kid and can (and should) be making more decisions for themselves.

Teens may take the help and support their parents provide for granted or feel uncomfortable navigating all these changes under the family spotlight and so may retreat—keeping to themself and their room. Teens also are putting more energy into their social lives and time with their friends becomes paramount.

Magnifying the struggle to maintain a close relationship with your teen is that the ultimate goal of adolescence is to change the relationship between parents and youth from one of dependence to independence.

The Dangers of Strained Dialogue

Feelings of guilt, pressure, stress, uncertainty, judgment, loneliness, and being misunderstood may abound on both sides making conversations feel heavy and strained. A pattern of faulty (or limited) communication can magnify these issues, creating a reinforcing loop that may make parents and/or teens dread talking to the other, ultimately eroding the parent-teen relationship.

Studies show that a connected, caring parent-teen relationship is key for healthy child development through adolescence. However, research also finds that not enough specific guidance or support exists to help parents fully understand the monumental changes that take place in the teen years or how to effectively shepherd their kids (and themselves) through this often challenging transition.

The lack of knowledge many parents have on how to successfully parent, support, and communicate with teens helps to explain why this period often becomes adversarial—and open dialogue grinds to a halt.

The Teenage Brain

When thinking about talking to your teen, it can help to understand the inner workings of the teenage brain. In addition to the flush of hormones and the rapidly maturing body, your adolescent's brain is undergoing intensive, transformative change—all of which together drive teens to become more independent, encouraging them to seek their own identity and to fit in with peers over their family.

Teens confront competing impulses to both seek comfort with family and shed being a little kid and strike out on their own. This process can feel confusing and a lot to cope with, making kids feel embarrassed, vulnerable, isolated, or uncomfortable.

Naturally, in response, they may shut down and avoid talking with the people who know them best (and whom they most want approval from)—their parents.

Keeping open communication becomes even more vital when you consider that the teen years are a period where children are highly susceptible to stress, risky behaviors, poor decision-making, anxiety, and depression. In fact, research tells us that while their bodies and minds may seem nearly full-grown (and age 18 may legally signal adulthood), that teen brains still have a lot of maturing left to do.

Why Talking Matters

Plenty of research tells us teens lack development in the realm of executive function, which explains the impulsivity, disorganization, emotional dysregulation, risk-taking, and moodiness that are the hallmarks of stereotypical adolescence. So, at the very time many kids are instinctively keeping parents at arm's length, they may be most in need of parental intervention, supervision, and guidance.

They Still Need You

While they may give off the "go away" vibe, many teens may be craving parental support, acceptance, and love. In fact, feeling connected to their parents can have strong impact on how they feel about themselves, as studies show that parent-teen closeness and affection has marked impact on a teen's self-worth. So, while they're unlikely to admit it, they still need (and want) you in their life.

Studies have also found that both parent-driven communication and teen-initiated disclosure (as in what teens freely share) have a big influence on adolescent behavior and reduces the likelihood of troubling behavior. Researchers point to evidence of a strong link between positive teen behavior and parents setting up rules and asking their teen questions about their life, friends, activities, and school.

The Stakes Are Big

Studies also confirm that teens with parents who have strong parental warmth and effective communication skills are more likely to succeed in life (defined by such parameters as graduation rates, GPA, teen pregnancy, drug use, and involvement in criminal activity) than children whose parents have less effective parenting skills and less involvement in their kids' lives. The trick, of course, is how to get the conversation going.

How to Talk to Your Teen

Whether you are just curious about what the adolescent years will bring, you seek to hone and maintain your communication with your kid, or you're knee deep in the tumult of trying to talk to your teen, we've got strategies that can help.

Focus on Listening

Sometimes, parents, in their enthusiasm to make a point or get the conversation going, may launch into a monologue without realizing it. Flip that dynamic by making sure you're giving them the opportunity to speak. Pay attention to how much you're talking and, if it's anywhere near 50%, aim to cut down on your airtime. Let them talk, ask them open-ended questions, and be interested in what they have to say.

Rather than focusing on what to say to your child, put your energy into listening—a strategy that's sure to be rewarded with fruitful conversation.

Pay Attention

Really listen to both what they say and what they don't—and use that information to inform your communication style and build connection. Do they seem to be in the mood to share? Are they dancing around an issue? What questions are they asking you? What topics do they seem most and least excited to talk about? What friends, activities, and issues are they bringing up the most?

Keep Your Cool

Notice, too, which topics or types of questions make them (and you) most reactive. Aim not to take their tone or emotional reactions personally—and strive not to react in kind. If you can stay calm and focus on their message rather than delivery, you'll likely have more productive conversations. It can help to frame your statements with "I feel" or "I wonder," rather than leading with "You," which can feel threatening or blaming.

Don't Push

While it's important to ask them the right questions, you also don't want to badger, nag, or push them into talking about or doing whatever it is that's up for debate. Be sure to give them space in the conversation to reflect on what they are saying. If a conversation feels like an interrogation or a battering ram, your child is less likely to share, participate, or listen, let alone feel enthusiastic about talking to you.

Don't Take Over

Equally important, don't take over the conversation. Sometimes, parents have a tendency to ask their child's thoughts or for an update on something, only to jump right in with their own take without giving their child a chance to compose their thoughts and fully answer. Alternatively, watch out for offering choices that don't actually feel like a choice to your teen—something that may feel like entrapment to them.

If you have a tendency to take over the conversation, your intention is likely to help your child, share a different perspective, or teach something, but your child may see this way of speaking as grandstanding, monopolizing, and not really caring about what they have to say.

Don't Judge

Another important component of facilitating healthy conversations with your teen is to try to remain neutral, empathetic, and genuine. When they share that they forgot to study for their math quiz or that their friend vapes or stays up until two in the morning on school nights, resist the urge to pass judgement or give unsolicited advice.

Yes, tell your teen what you think and make sure you've spelled out clear expectations, especially when it comes to your own teen's behavior and safety. However, you don't need to pipe in with every criticism or suggestion that crosses your mind, particularly when it's not crucial to what you're talking about. This doesn't mean you let everything slide, just that you react with kindness and as an ally first.

Plus, if they're worried about dealing with the aftermath of your judgment, they will be far less likely to share in the first place. So, instead of reacting with fury, I-told-you-sos, disappointment, or detailed study plans when they mention a failed test, offer compassion—and then let them vent. Ask how you can help. Ask what they can do better next time. Or simply give them a hug.

Pause

Hand-in-hand with not leaning in to judging is to pause before responding—or getting frustrated with your teen. When you ask them what's going on with school or to unload the dishwasher or to finish their homework before playing video games, they may react badly at first or not at all. Wait before you also jump in with a negative response.

Silence is powerful. If you give them a second, a minute, an hour, or more to think, their impulsive "no," "I'm not doing that," "this is so unfair," or "you're so mean" might turn into an "ok."

Even if compliance (or simply having a conversation with you) is begrudging, take it as a win. Giving them a pause and a chance to engage positively, models patience and shows them you trust them to come around—and sometimes teenage brains need a little extra time to make the right decisions. Your expectations are powerful and are often realized, if given adequate time and support.

See Them as Their Own Person

As much as parents often may know better, it's important to see your teen as their own person with their own thoughts, feelings, priorities, talents, and dreams—and not just as an extension of you. Obviously, it's a parents job to help shape their teen, but ultimately, they get to decide who they will become.

Knowing you are on their side and see them as the individual they are will strengthen your relationship—and keep them talking. You don't always have to agree or be happy about all of their choices, beliefs, behaviors, or ideas, but let them know you support them nonetheless. Teens seek to be seen and to belong—aim to offer both, unconditionally, in your home and your conversations.

Show Them Respect (and Expect It in Return)

If you are respectful of your teen, they are more likely to be respectful of you. Practice key conversation etiquette like asking if it's a good time to talk, not interrupting, not talking about private topics in front of others, never (except in the case of safety) betraying their confidence, and respecting their opinions.

Other respect basics that go a long way are looking them in the eye, taking their concerns and stories seriously, and generally, treating them in a trusting and caring manner. Knocking before entering their room is also likely to set the tone for a better interaction.

Set Boundaries

While it's important to demonstrate respect for your teen, you still need to have rules and boundaries, in general, and for conversations specifically. These can be an extension of your house rules, but instead of setting expectations around curfew, electronics and phone usage, chores, or safety, these rules help maintain civil and productive dialogue.

Boundaries for conversations may include rules around yelling, giving more than a one word answer, off-limit words (such as swear words or other inflammatory phrases that you want them to avoid, or even calling you by your first name rather than Mom or Dad), accusations, taking timeouts if arguments arise, not continually rehashing the same topics, and not getting into the parent's personal life.

Setting specific rules for your talks can help, especially if your conversations have been tense. Ideally, parents and teens create these guidelines together so that everyone's concerns are addressed and all parties can agree on an acceptable framework for communication.

Take a Breath

Sometimes, it can make a world of difference if you take a breath before speaking. Your first impulse may be to say something you'll regret—or that will be taken all wrong. For example, if your teen shares an embarrassing story about a mistake they made, you might hurt their feelings or shut down the conversation entirely if you blurt out "that's terrible," "why'd you do that?" or burst out laughing.

Another time to hold your tongue is if it might lead you astray or right into an argument. Say you walk into your teen's room to talk to them about their upcoming soccer game or a finals exam, but quickly start pointing out the unmade bed, dirty dishes on the side table, and wet towel on the floor, not only will your original conversation go sideways but your teen will think you're just looking to criticize.

Say "Yes"

While rules and expectations are super important and can help keep teens organized, productive, and safe, it's also important to say "yes" to what you can. Using the classic "if, then" parenting strategy can work for teens, too. So, instead of saying "no," you say "yes, if you finish your paper and clean your room, then you can go to the party."

Be flexible too, when possible, so that your teen sees you as an ally who wants to work with them, provided they follow the guidelines you can't bend. So, when they come to you to ask if they can spend the night at the friend's house with no parental supervision, you might say, "no, but they can sleepover here." Compromising, even negotiating together, can even become something to connect over.

Surprise them with a "yes" when you can. Not only will you engender goodwill, but you'll keep your teen coming to you with their requests and plans. They'll know you'll at least consider them, which can make things go better when you do need to say "no."

Pick Your Battles

We all likely remember this one from the preschool years, but the value of picking your battles holds true for teens as well. You're not going to be able to solve every issue, make every plan, or forge a deeper bond with your teen all in one talk. Instead, pick one goal (such as talking about cleaning their room, finding out about their classes, or just soliciting more than a grunt when you talk) and work on that.

Hand-in-hand with picking your battles is letting some stuff go—at least for the moment. Too much all at once can be overwhelming and frustrating for both of you. So, when your focus is on grades, skip reminding them about the importance of healthy sleep habits. Save other topics for a different conversation.

Use Humor

When all else fails, another strategy is to use humor to build bridges. Don't force this one and be sure to choose your openings wisely. If your attempts to make light of a situation don't land, for example, if your teen seems more annoyed or upset, be prepared to abandon your attempt to make a joke. You may even need to apologize to ensure they know you meant no offense.

However, often saying something unexpected or silly or simply laughing (be sure you're laughing with rather than at your teen) can break the tension, get your teen laughing, and often take a conversation to new depths. Even better, you may end up with some inside jokes, which often serve to strengthen the parent-teen bond.

Humor is a way to show your own vulnerability and creativity—and that you value the relationship above all else, and especially over any stressful or difficult topic or issue you might be discussing.

Share Their Interests

If you want to get your teen talking, try talking about something they like. Anything works here (from TV shows and hobbies to favorite foods or politics) as long as you put in the effort to listen and learn. You may want to google the subject to do some reconnaissance so you actually know what you're talking about, too. Say, your teen loves anime, watch some together and discuss. If they love tofu, look up recipes.

Putting in genuine effort to get to know your teen's passions, likes, and dislikes, delving into their opinions, and generally, getting at what makes them tick will naturally make them more open to chatting—and hanging out—with you. The flip side is don't force your pastimes and favorite topics on them, although it's certainly fine to share them in kind.

Talking about positive, fun passions they enjoy is also a pleasant deviation from the heavy stuff many other parent-teen conversations focus on, namely grades, behavior, friends, rules, and messes.

Tips for Difficult Conversations

The above suggestions can work for light or heavy conversations—and it might help to try different tactics as various strategies will work better in some situations than others. Plus, it's wise to start working on improving your parent-teen dialogue before you sense any problems, as then you'll have a toolbox at-the-ready.

Laying the groundwork for positive communication will especially pay off if and when any of the hard or important stuff like dating, grades, college plans, money, bullying, friends, family issues, health problems, death, or divorce comes into your lives. Most importantly, approach these topics with compassion, caring, and your best listening ear. Offer a shoulder to cry on, a cookie, or a snack, as needed, too.

Aim not to make assumptions about what your teen is thinking and also don't assume they know your point of view. Share your feelings (grief, anger, sadness, surprise, worry, and so on) so that your teen feels safe sharing there's.

Their actions may need consequences, but be careful not to ridicule, belittle, or punish your teen for their feelings or ideas. You may have conversations where you learn things that disappoint, sadden, or anger you, but make sure they always know you're in their corner—and that you love them.

When to Seek Help

If you've tried and tried to get your teen talking and are getting nowhere, it might be time to enlist reinforcements. This might be the other parent, another relative, an older sibling, a family friend, or a doctor or other mental health professional. If your teen has a great relationship with another trusted adult or teen, you can try reaching out to them to help you get the conversations flowing.

Alternatively, consider talking to their pediatrician if you have any concerns over their behavior and/or mental or physical health. Their doctor can also give you a referral for a counselor.

Individual or family therapy (online therapy or in person) can be greatly beneficial when negative patterns are too ingrained for conversation to flow freely. A counselor can help you reestablish a healthier bond and rebuild positive communication.

A Word From Verywell

It can be heartbreaking for parents when their teen doesn't seem to want to talk to them anymore or their conversations end in slammed doors, hurt feelings, blank stares, or rolled eyes. But don't despair—or give up. With a little (or a lot of) tinkering and patience, you can get your teen talking and your relationship back on track.

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Article Sources
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