Communicating with Teens

Written by: Julie DeFalco
Are you constantly having power struggles with your teen? Does most of your communication with your teen involve conflict? Does it seem like your kids never listen? Are you stressed out and yelling all the time? Are you wondering, “How do I deal with this teenager?!” If so, you are not alone. These are common complaints I hear from parents of teens. Many parents feel like their kid has suddenly turned into a different person when adolescence hits, and they have no idea how to communicate with this person.

Adolescence is a time of many changes – which can be stressful and turbulent, but also exciting and amazing – for both you and your child. Teenagers are in limbo, stuck between childhood and adulthood. They are struggling with becoming more independent while still being dependent on you for many things. Because of the natural developmental need to increasingly assert their independence, teens will test more limits than ever. This makes parenting more challenging, to say the least. Understanding that teens actually need to do this is a start to communicating more effectively with them.

Here are some tips that will help increase the excitement and decrease the turbulence of the adolescent years for both of you.

Listen to your teen.

A major part of any communication is listening. Just like you, teens need to feel heard and validated. Their opinions are important. Hear them out, even if (or especially if!) you don’t agree with them. You don’t have to change your mind or rules or anything else; just listen. A great communication skill to learn and use with your teen is reflective listening. Reflective listening involves stating back to the person what he said and incorporating the feeling he’s expressed. This helps to clarify content and validate your teen’s feelings. Also good to remember: just because you validate a negative feeling doesn’t mean you are condoning inappropriate behavior. For example, you might say, “You’re super angry that you can’t go out tonight, but you need to express that to me in a calmer voice.” The first part of this statement validates feelings, and the second part sets a limit on behaviors: It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to yell.

Keep it short and to the point.

Don’t lecture – your kids aren’t listening anyway! When a lecture is on the way, your teen knows it and tunes you out after the first sentence. It’s much more effective to get your point across in as few words as possible. Remember: teens have a short attention span. When you set a rule or limit, give a brief reason for it. Parents of teens frequently tell me that they don’t feel they should have to give a reason – rules are rules and that’s that. While this is true, a teen is much more likely to cooperate with a rule if she knows there’s a logical reason for it (even if she doesn’t agree with the rule). Once you’ve established a rule, you can simply refer to it whenever necessary; your teen doesn’t need to hear the explanation every time.

Set appropriate limits and communicate what they are.

Although you may sometimes feel your teen no longer needs you (and she may tell you that), she needs you very much. Teens need structure and limits to help guide them while they are trying out their newfound independence. It is the parent or caregiver’s job to provide the structure. Decide what is negotiable and what’s non-negotiable, and let your teen know. For example, you may have a non-negotiable rule that your teen is not allowed to drink alcohol. That means no matter what your teen says or does, this rule will not change. An example of a negotiable rule is a set curfew that may be later for special occasions like a dance or concert. In this case, your teen may be allowed to plead a case for staying out a little later. Either way, you as the parent have the final say. So, decide on the most important values you want to instill in your teen and make your non-negotiable rules based on those. Allow your teen more freedom in other areas.

Follow through on consequences.

Rules and limits are ineffective without having consequences when they are broken. Teens will test limits, so you need to be prepared to follow through on consequences when rules are broken. This shows your teen that you can be trusted, and it will help him feel safe and secure. It’s most effective to explain what the consequence will be beforehand and make it logical. For example, you may tell your teen if he comes home late, he cannot go out the next night. That means if he comes home late, he is not allowed to go out the next night, no matter how much begging, crying or yelling he does. Remember, those negative responses are just your teen’s way of testing limits. Once they realize you are consistent, these behaviors will decrease, making room for more positive interactions.

Give your teen options.

With limited choices, your teen can exercise some control and independence while you also have control. For example, you may feel comfortable letting your younger teen stay out later if she’s with her older sister. You might give her the option: “You can go to the carnival with your friends and be home by 9:00, or you can go with your sister and be home by 10:00.” While both options are acceptable to you, you’ve given your teen the independence to decide what’s more important to her. This is an important practice for your teen to develop essential decision-making skills.

These are just a few tips for communicating in a more positive way with your teen. If you need more help or support, please consider counseling for yourself or your family.