It’s amazing how the very notion of conversing with teenagers brings up a range of responses in adults from eye rolls and groans to negative sarcastic quips such as ‘good luck with that!’ But if we want better communication with our teens we need to challenge this attitude and see what’s underneath it.
There’s a common misunderstanding that people between the ages of twelve and eighteen fall under a special category of human. One encapsulated by terms like ‘difficult’, ‘challenging’ and ‘emotional’. The stereotype is that teenagers refuse to listen to our advice and are primarily peer driven, so what’s the point!
It’s not the only life phase where fluctuating hormones and changing brain chemistry influence the intensity of life experiences. But unlike earlier childhood it can be tricky for parents and caregivers to know what to say in support and how much space to give for the teen to work things out on their own.
A teenager is dancing between childhood and learning to be an adult and they need the space and understanding to go back and forth for a while. It may seem frustratingly contradictory that they slam the door shut one minute and want cuddles the next but it’s the perfect example of where they are at.
The best thing we can do as parents and caregivers is accept the WHOLE of their experience and work to keep ourselves as calm and consistent in our responses as possible. Accepting that this phase of parenting can be a major part of our own personal growth is one way we can change the negative attitude and come back to a state of engaged presence.
Talking to teens is about building a structure of emotional safety. If they experience you as calm and consistent they know they can come to you. If they experience you as emotionally unstable, it won’t feel like a safe space for them and communication will dry up.
Some tips for talking to teens with better results
Before you talk, observe
There have been times when I’ve been ready to launch into a chat about domestic expectations and then I’ve stopped to look at my daughter properly. She’s just got up (I’ve been up for 2 hours), she’s hazy, half asleep and hungry. She is clearly not in the space for a conversation about house chores. Observe your teenager before you open your mouth and see if you can gauge where they are at. What’s their mood and energy level like; do they need some basic needs met first like food or sleep. Choose your time to talk wisely.
Before you talk, listen
Ask your teen if it’s a good time to talk, ask them how they’re doing and take time to just listen attentively. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, give them eye contact and sit down with them to really hear what they are saying. Use mirroring, a technique of paraphrasing back what they’ve said to you in a succinct way to show them you’re taking it in and validating their feelings. Ask them questions and give them space to answer without pressure, making assumptions or talking over them. If you’ve listened to them properly, when it’s your turn to talk and they interrupt, you can remind them that you need to be listened to as well. It’s a valuable skill to both practice and teach at the same time.
Do things together
The best conversations I have with my teens are always on long walks, car rides and at the dinner table. We have a strict no device rule at our dining table, on walks and not always in the car but more often than not we are talking rather than them scrolling. If you play sports or share interests of any kind, doing these things with your teens is time you will never regret. Staying connected to their passions and interests not only gives you more to talk about but shows your support and again creates that emotional safe space for them to just BE.
Own your mistakes
Be prepared to own your mistakes and say sorry when necessary. Show your teen that you are only human and still learning too. Show them you get things wrong sometimes and it has consequences. Our teenagers need to learn how to make mistakes and how to problem solve and learn through experience. Give them the space to play, muck up, feel terrible for a while then put it behind them and move on. Show them that making a mistake doesn’t speak to your identity other than confirms you are human.
Part of your job is to say NO, but explain why
Give an explanation not just a flat ‘no’. Even though ‘no’ can be a complete sentence and may be used down the track if they continue to hound you (and haven’t listened). It might be useful to your teen to offer an explanation initially. It helps them to see your point of view even if they don’t agree with it. They learn that opposing viewpoints exist and need to be respected.
It will also help you work through your own triggers. Does their request send you into an immediate state of defensiveness, anger or fear? Does it highlight a judgement that you hold? Doing some reflection when you feel triggered gives you a chance to see where this might be coming from, usually a past experience or cultural conditioning. Here in lies an opportunity for your own healing or questioning of old beliefs. And if it’s still a ‘no’, own it and be consistent.
Embrace the journey
Next time you feel tempted to eye roll or throw your hands up in resignation, see if you can lean into the idea that your teenager is potentially one of your best life teachers. Lessons in spiritual growth are never the cruisy cake walks. It’s the challenging relationships and life experiences that ultimately provide the richest opportunities for growth.
See if you can identify something your teen is trying to teach you: Patience, dealing with uncertainty, issues around trust and control, setting boundaries, letting go, unconditional love and acceptance. When you can see the relationship as an growth opportunity, it may be easier to lean in and embrace the messy, wonderful journey because it’ll be over before you know it.