Communicating With Teens: What to Say and How to Say it

Talking With Teens

As a parent of two teenagers, I was looking forward to chatting with Wendy Mogel, PhD for my latest Q&A. Mogel is a clinical psychologist and author of several books including her latest, Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen. The revised version of her first book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Timeless Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, was published in 2008 when my children were just coming into adolescence. Her insights helped me navigate all sorts of parenting questions: Is it OK that I make my children do chores? (Yes!) Do other parents get as frustrated as I do? (Of course!)

Voice Lessons for Parents tackles the importance of how parents and children speak to each other. Specifically, how tone and demeanor can positively – or negatively – shape these relationships. Mogel argues that it’s not what parents say, but how they say it, that often leads to family conflict or peace.

Wendy Mogel, author of Voice Lessons for Parents
Wendy Mogel, PhD

Allison Gilbert: What are the most essential voice lessons for parents of teenagers?

Wendy Mogel: There are four.

  1. Number one would be pitch. When a parent’s voice gets too high, teens may perceive that as a sign of nervousness and not trust their mother or father’s judgment. Teenagers may wrongly conclude they’re making headway in an argument when they’re not. Parents are often unaware of their pitch, so it’s important they take notice.
  2. Number two is tone. Specifically, a tone of displeasure. Parents today are often angry at children for being children. Parents sort of want them to skip adolescence and go from being “little buddy” to “junior statesman.” But adolescence is essential! Adolescence is when they get to make a lot of mistakes before they launch into adulthood.
  3. Number three is distraction. The quality of communication is often impaired by having a phone in our hand. Even if the phone is turned over, even if it’s just in the room, we’re half-listening. If you’re listening to your teenager but thinking about what might have come in (or what you need to send out) via a device, the conversation doesn’t constitute heartfelt, soulful attention.
  4. And finally, we need to consider speed. We need to listen. We need to pause. We need to reflect before we respond.
We need to listen. We need to pause. We need to reflect before we respond.

AG:  What do families experience when they pay attention to these lessons? What are the results?

WM: There’s more sincerity and closeness within families. Children are calmer. And they listen more attentively. Another result is just having more fun! By following these lessons, family members are able to be more playful with each other. And it begins when parents approach their children from a more respectful spot. (For more strategies on successfully communicating with teens read Why Lectures Backfire and Avoid Conflict with an I Statement by Ken Ginsburg, Co-Founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.)

AG: You’ve discussed the importance of giving your tween or teen a nickname. This is surprising to me. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

WM:  Endearing nicknames communicate to children they’re cherished. Their day is hard – socially, academically. Nicknames lighten everybody’s load. Nicknames should be private, though, and shouldn’t be used in front of their friends.

AG:  How do you see technology affecting families?

WM: Common Sense Media did a study with Northwestern University on parent device use. It turns out it’s as big a problem as teen device use. The boundaries of home are now permeated by the demands of work. The walls have fallen down.

The first thing parents should do is look at themselves. My phone tells me how much time I spend using it each week, and it divides it up by social media. I was shocked! If your daughter is sleeping through the night, if she seems to spend enough time outdoors, if you like her friends, if she’s making good choices, if her teachers are saying positive things about her, if she has something in her life that lights her up, then I’d let her tech use be.

AG: You’ve discussed the power of writing notes. Why is it helpful for parents and teenagers to put thoughts on paper?

WM: Teenagers long to save face. They’re so easily humiliated. If children can slip a note under a parent’s door when something is weighing on their heart, or when there’s something they’re worried about, they take advantage of a wonderful communication tool. And parents can do the same! A beautiful and inspiring book to read with terrific letters from famous and accomplished parents to their children is Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children. You want to be that person, the parent who writes their child a letter. When you consider what to write, make sure your message is even-keeled and sparks an opening for further communication. You may also want to let your children know they can write anything to you, too.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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