Today’s teens get bombarded with information daily in ways that would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago. Now, more than ever, parents must live out trusting relationships with each other and with their kids. Modeling what trust looks like will pave the way for positive conversations about potentially sensitive subjects ranging from daily chores to birth control.
Because it’s so important to engage continually with your teen, it makes sense not to focus so much on having “The Big Talk.” Instead, try to encourage a lot of mini-talks. Here are 10 ways you can bring a low-pressure approach to being there when your teen is ready to open up.
Table of Contents
- 1. Overlook everything you can.
- 2. Make a habit of positioning yourself strategically.
- 3. Talk about surface topics of mutual interest.
- 4. Pick your battles — and battlefields — carefully.
- 5. Know your “opponent.”
- 6. The medium is often the message.
- 7. Don’t interrupt.
- 8. Keep an eye on the internal and external “dashboard lights.”
- 9. Repeat what you’ve heard until they agree you “get it.”
- 10. Validate everything you can.
1. Overlook everything you can.
If you burn up all your relational capital with nagging, your teen will be far less likely to listen when it’s time to discuss something important. Teens make a lot of mistakes, but if you call them on every single one, you run the risk of losing your voice in their lives.
Before engaging with your teen over some minor irritation, pause long enough to ask yourself the following question. Does this behavior rise to the level of something that must be addressed now, eventually, or (maybe) never? If nothing ever ends up in the “never” column, you probably need to reassess some things.
2. Make a habit of positioning yourself strategically.
Observe your teen’s routines and natural habitat then silently insert yourself into them. Your son or daughter is far more likely to begin a conversation on his way to the fridge than to knock on your closed office door.
While you may get more work done in your office than at the kitchen table, you also send a strong signal of being unavailable. Your teen may or may not choose to engage with you as he grabs the OJ, but at least now it’s an option.
3. Talk about surface topics of mutual interest.
Don’t pretend to be interested in something your teen cares about. Instead, look for genuine areas of interest that overlap and practice having respectful conversations when the stakes are low. Don’t insert yourself into their conversations with friends, but keep an unobtrusive ear open to educate yourself on what they find interesting.
The more you can talk with your teen — and, more importantly, get them talking to you — the better your relationship will be. The comfort level you establish will help you tackle the sensitive topics that can often cause teens to clam up.
4. Pick your battles — and battlefields — carefully.
There’s a time and a place for everything, so minimize friction through the intentional choice of right time, right place, and right frame of mind. The opposite strategy would be to burst into your daughter’s room, seething with anger, when she’s on the phone with a friend.
The best conversations are those that happen naturally, on the fly, when all participants are in a good mood. Keep the HALT acronym — Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired — in mind. Don’t attempt to engage if one or more of these factors would prevent you or your teen from having a healthy dialogue.
5. Know your “opponent.”
As we go from being teenagers to adults, we gradually acquire the active gray matter needed to make sound decisions. We also tend to conveniently forget the stupid choices we made in high school and college.
Before entering into any conversation with your teen, remember that they literally do not think the same way you do. It’s not necessarily that they are being stubborn, it might just be a neurological reality. (Now add wildly fluctuating hormones on top of that.) You will be better able to offer grace and keep your frustration in check by taking your teen’s ongoing physical development into account.
6. The medium is often the message.
Decide in advance how you want to communicate with your teen. When the message is “Please take out the trash before 8 p.m.,” what’s the best way to communicate that? Depending on your relationship and your teen’s temperament, it could be in person, on the kitchen memo board, or via text.
The same words tend to be perceived differently depending on the medium you choose. Use this tendency to your advantage. Never send emotion-laden content via text or email. In such cases, your teen must be able to read your facial expressions and body language.
7. Don’t interrupt.
When your teen is talking, don’t finish their sentences or otherwise interrupt. There’s no guarantee you’ll be given the same courtesy, but your purpose here is to model good listening, not demand it.
Many parents will interject whenever their teen says something demonstrably false or otherwise unenlightened. Resist the temptation to correct your teen mid-sentence. Your response will carry more weight if you’ve done a good job listening.
8. Keep an eye on the internal and external “dashboard lights.”
If you start to have an unpleasant emotional response to what your teen is saying, ask to take a break from the conversation. Assure your child that they are not the problem — you are. You just need a few moments to process what they’ve said and collect your thoughts.
If your teen points out that your facial expressions or posture seems adversarial, accept their assessment and make a mental note of it. If things heat up on either side, ask your teen whether they’d like to put a pin in the topic for now. You can always go back to it later.
9. Repeat what you’ve heard until they agree you “get it.”
The goal here is not to edit what your teen is saying by rephrasing it in your own words. Rather, you’re trying to state it in such a way that they’ll be able to say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.”
You are likely to have a backlog of responses that you’d prefer to blurt out, but the clarification process does two things. One, it communicates to your teen that you care enough to make sure you understand their position. Two, it can prevent you from responding badly to something you only thought you heard.
10. Validate everything you can.
You probably know going in that you are not going to agree with everything your teen thinks or says. That’s to be expected. Before launching into a full-blown critique of what you perceive to be foolishness, though, invest some positivity into the process.
Don’t affirm things just for the sake of affirmation; teens can sniff out insincerity like bloodhounds. Instead, offer a positive in advance of any correction. Try, “I love that you are such a good friend to Jack, but he needs to have his parents bail him out, not you.”
The teen years are full of challenges, and there is no shortage of sensitive topics you’ll need to discuss. If you can keep the channels of communication open with your teen, you’ll have a much better chance of successfully handling tricky conversations when they arise.