10 Tips to Help You Communicate With Your Teen

During sessions with parents of teens and tweens, I am often asked about communication strategies. While the door to communicating with your tween or teen may not be wide open, there are crevices in that door that your child is peering through and not only hopes but longs to meet you there. As a former teen myself, I can tell you that when my parents tried to schedule talks with me, the situation would turn into an awkward exchange, and I could literally feel the door of communication slowly closing. Believe it or not, your teens and tweens do want to communicate with you, but they want to do it on their terms. 

Tip 1: Pay Attention

Their attempts to talk to you can be extremely subtle. It could come in the form of making a statement about feeling tired or a comment about a team practice or school assignment. In those moments, be sure to engage. The most common first response of parents is, “Want to talk about it?” This will result in a quick, “Nah.” The key is to ask questions without sounding like a prying parent. How does one do this? I’m glad you asked! If they seem hesitant to open up, ask the same question differently. Your question(s) may look like this: “How did you sleep last night?”, “What did you have for lunch? Want me to make you a snack?” or “How is the team looking?” “What about the assignment is giving you trouble?”. When I was growing up, I remember so many times having something on my mind and would throw my parents hints that I needed to talk. Through no fault of their own, those hints went unrecognized, and therefore, I felt ignored; thus, the moment was lost. Your teens may not be wanting to have a long conversation at that moment, but knowing you see them and are available to them will certainly go a long way in opening crevices for future communications and interactions. 

Tip 2: Talk While Cooking or Go Out for Dessert

It has been said that the kitchen is the heart of the home, so it should be no surprise that some of the best conversations would take place there. Preparing food is one of the most common ways parents nurture their children and one of the best ways to bond is through time together in the kitchen. If you are preparing dinner and one of your children asks what they will be having, tell them what you are planning and then ask for help with the preparation. In these few minutes, ask them about their day- be sure to ask specific questions. For example, rather than asking, “How was your day?”, which only allows for a typical response of “fine”, try asking, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” or “What new things did you do in science?”. These questions are more open and not only allow your child to elaborate but shows them you are interested without asking questions that may be too personal. To add to this kitchen time, invite your child to choose and prepare a side dish or dessert (with your supervision). This will deepen the crevice and allow for ongoing communication in those moments together. If time permits, suggest going out for dessert. Precious conversations can occur in car rides! (See Tip 6!)

Tip 3: Let Them Know You’re There to Listen (and not Judge!)

Being quick to listen and slow to speak can be one of the hardest skills for parents but can make the biggest difference when communicating with teens. While you certainly have more life experience, it is of the utmost importance that they have the freedom to speak openly and honestly knowing that you are there to offer gentle guidance without telling them what to do or how to feel. Non-verbal communication is extremely vital and plays a huge role in these conversations. Subtle facial expressions and body posture can, at times, scream louder than any words spoken. Allow your teen to express his/her feelings and then validate those feelings. When I began to have questions as a tween, I remember being told that there are certain things we do not question, certain topics were inappropriate to discuss, or that I should know better. Rather than being placed in that awkward situation again, I stopped allowing myself to ask; more specifically, I stopped asking my parents questions. When your teens feel they cannot approach you with questions or things they simply do not understand, they go to other teens who may know little or less than they do, or they may go to the internet- which can lead them down a rabbit hole of misinformation, confusion, and frustration. Sometimes tweens and teens just want to be heard. They don’t necessarily want you to fix their problem, but would rather you be there as a sounding board. Giving your children the opportunity to make mistakes will provide them the opportunity to learn based on their choices. 

Tip 4: Play a Video or Board Game They Choose

On the rare occasion that a teen asks you to play a game with them, let them choose the game. If your child usually plays games alone, you may even offer to play a game with him/her. I have found that parents oftentimes do not know what their teens are interested in or like. If a child approaches you to play a game or share a hobby, they are telling you that they want you to know them better and share their interests. Ask them questions about the game and have them explain the rules. Next, ask follow-up questions about how they got interested in this game and who they usually play the game with. Even if there is no heavy conversation going on, the crevice to communicate is deepening. They are constantly communicating so keep your eyes, ears, and heart open for those subtle clues. 

Tip 5: Share Your Feelings First

When a tween/teen goes through puberty, they are often told only about the physical changes. For some reason, the emotional changes are overlooked or are explained with one simple word: Hormones! Just so we are on the same page, the pituitary gland not only releases the hormones that cause boys and girls to grow body hair, boys’ voices to deepen, and girls to become more curvaceous, but it is also responsible for this new emotional range that one experiences. As if all of the awkward bodily changes were not cruel enough, these kids now have the emotional range of a 40-year-old with the understanding of a 12- or 13-year-old (or however old your child is). This explains why some kids get so angry so quickly or burst into tears for no apparent reason. When asked what is wrong or why they are crying, many will answer, “I don’t know.” They are not being belligerent or defiant. They honestly do not know what emotion they are feeling because they have never encountered such emotional intensity.  Share that you understand and are there for them. This may look like nothing more than sitting in silence. Sharing personal experiences from when you were their age gives them a peek at you as a human, rather than only being able to see you as a parent. Kids don’t envision their parents as tweens or teens because they have only ever known them as adults. When I first heard stories from my dad’s teen years and some of the mischief he had gotten into, it completely changed how I saw him- and not in a bad way. I felt like I could finally relate to him on a new level.

Tip 6: Talk During Car Rides

There are some tips to make car rides- regardless of distance- enjoyable for everyone. Tweens and teens using headphones/earbuds or playing on their phones will only isolate them and shut any crevices to communication. My suggestion would be to let your child choose the music and play it over the car speakers. Ask them about the music they listen to and why they like it. Ask them to explain the lyrics and what the lyrics mean. Again, music is a subtle clue as to the emotional state of your child. In addition, this shows them that you are interested in them and want to know about their likes and dislikes. Take this opportunity to introduce them to music you enjoyed as a tween/teen. Sing loudly and be silly. Share with them stories of dances and fashion trends from your day. Laughter is a great doorway that can lead to deeper talks. All the while, listen again for those little clues that they are ready and willing to talk. 

Tip 7: Use Open-Ended Questions like “Tell Me More”

Questions like “Did you have a good day?” or “Did anything fun or exciting happen at school today?” do not open the door for any conversation to follow. When phrasing questions, try to ask specific, yet open-ended questions. Perhaps ask about a specific class; “What experiments are you working on in science?” or “Tell me the new words or phrases you are learning in Spanish”. When they offer you one bit of information, ask them to tell you more. As they begin to open up and share, act as an engaged bystander- laughing and asking more open-ended questions, not judging or offering parental advice. 

Tip 8: Use a Private Journal Just for the Two of You

I have often heard clients express that if they “don’t say it, then it isn’t real”. Writing things down not only helps your teen process what they are experiencing but gives them the freedom to provide their feelings in a well, thought out manner. This modality also provides you the freedom to read and process what they are sharing. If you have difficulty interjecting your thoughts or making a face that could be read as judgmental or disappointed, a shared journal may be a great way for the two of you to breech difficult subjects. Topics that they may choose to write about may be as simple as being liked by a boy/girl or fitting in with a certain group; others may be more complex and deal with faith, sexuality, or self-esteem. Regardless of how small we may think the situation is, to the tween/teen walking the path at that moment, the situation is huge! The journal concept can be as simple as having a notebook in their room and after they have written in it, they place it in a designated spot for you. Once you have read their entry and responded, you place it back in its original spot. The teen will know you have read it and have responded. Just as in a face-to-face conversation, you may offer open-ended questions or thoughtful support. As they mature, they may choose to look back over resolved topics and see how they have grown and changed their perspectives or ideas. A couple of suggestions would be to let them pick out a journal and pen or the journal and pen could be a gift from you. Regardless, make the occasion special as something that you both share.

Tip 9: The Less You React, The More They Might Share

Teens want to learn things for themselves. They want to be able to explore the realms of their world on their terms. In doing so, some of their ideas and plans may not fit into the mold that we, as parents, have for them. Sitting in silence and allowing them to express themselves, gives them the freedom to talk through their thoughts. When we interject our thoughts and feelings, the tween/teen may feel shut down, stifled, held back, and sometimes even have feelings of rejection. I have had many teen clients express their parents did not approve of their life choices. When I ask, “Did they say that? Did they say those words?”, the answer is overwhelmingly the same, “No, but I could just tell.” Remember: looks of judgment and uncomfortable body language can scream louder than any quiet words spoken.

Tip 10: Check In if it’s Okay to Check In About a Certain Topic First

When peering through the door of communication, there are signs that alert us whether it is safe to enter or if we should keep walking. Giving your teen the option to discuss a topic gives them a sense of control over their lives. Giving them this measure of control will go a long way in building trust between the two of you. I have found that if I ask a question that is met with resistance, they may be willing to discuss the topic if the same question is asked differently. Some topics can be tagged as “off limits” while others may be approached with caution. Let your teen be the guide. You will get farther in communicating with them by trusting them to come to you rather than forcing them to discuss a topic. Just as you have boundaries, respect the boundaries that your teen sets. When the time is right, he/she will not only meet you in the crevice but will open the door and allow you in.

About Christian Garrett

Christian specializes in working with teens struggling to find their places in life, parents of teens who need tools to help their teens, and people of all ages wanting to gain a fresh perspective of their current situation, whether that be professionally, health-wise, or with interpersonal relationships.

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