Recently, a fellow parent reached out to me, mentioning I’d probably want to have a conversation with my 12-year-old daughter. Apparently, my daughter had been with a group of girls at a friend’s home during a time when questionable photos were taken and then posted on social media. The photos showed another youngster posing with some bottles of alcohol. Although my daughter wasn’t in the photos, I wanted to find out what she knew. Was she there when the photos were taken? Was anyone drinking? I had plenty of questions and I wanted some honest answers. Important conversations were called for. At the very least, this would be a teachable, if not challenging, moment.
Start Talking Early and Often
Starting this type of conversation is never easy. But there are plenty of steps parents can take to help important conversations go as smoothly as possible. Accounting for the “when, where and how” of communication can make all the difference.
It’s worth saying – we must not wait until our kids become teenagers to work on better communication. Start talking openly when they are young and make these types of chats commonplace. If we do, we’ll find many more options for times and places to have important conversations as our children reach adolescence.
Be Honest With Yourself
We shouldn’t dive into hard conversations without acknowledging how strongly we already feel about a topic. And, how comfortable (or not!) we might be in addressing it. When taking on hot-button issues (examples include sex, drugs, alcohol usage) do you often voice strong opinions? If so, it may be best to back off a bit before bringing it up. Our teens may not want to begin a conversation about these types of topics if they know exactly what we’re going to say. Also, some teens may be quite good at reading our body language, and they react accordingly. So it’s important to remain calm and to work out your feelings of discomfort before you talk to your teens.
Keep Your Cool
Easier said than done if your teen has done something to make you upset. But if we can’t remain calm we shouldn’t expect our teens to do so either. If we yell or overreact we run the risk of our teens “turning off” and nixing the conversation altogether.
There’s a number of reasons not to have talks during heated moments. When young people are tense, heated, angry or upset they can’t absorb information. However, when calm they are better able to think through consequences. Kids will be more receptive to our advice when we offer it in a relaxed tone. So, if you’re feeling wound up, give yourself a time-out.
Watch Your Tone
Avoid using a negative tone with teens. For example, “Why are you such a mess?” or “Why can’t you do this right?”, puts them on the defensive. If you find yourself arguing with your teen, pull back. Take a moment to instead ask an open-ended question. Or try using an “I” statement — in which you’ll explain how you feel rather than point out what they did or didn’t do. For example, “When I experienced this __________ I felt __________.” Your teen will more readily understand where you’re coming from.
Find the Best Time
It’s important to not start a conversation when we know our children already have a lot on their mind. Sure, this sometimes makes it hard to find a good time, but think about a time that’s more neutral. If a teen is already emotional, too busy (or too relaxed), it’s likely not the best time to talk. In the situation with my daughter, I learned about the photos in the morning but waited until closer to her bedtime before bringing it up. That gave me plenty of time to think about my approach. I was calm. So was she. She’d finished her homework, taken a shower and was reading before bed.
It would be convenient if we could always set perfect conversation times. We could pick a time when everyone is most alert, calm, and receptive to joint problem-solving. But teens have their own inner clocks. And crises have no preset times. So even as we speak of the ideal, we must be as flexible as we can and be available when called upon. This isn’t new to you – remember the occasional sleepless nights of infancy and toddlerhood? Although teens are becoming increasingly independent, when they need us, they need us. It is these unplanned moments where our availability draws us closer.
Listen and Show Empathy
Listening is a skill that some of us are better at than others. (Personally, I’m still working on it.) When it comes to adolescents, listening (and not interrupting) is key to getting them to keep talking to and confiding in us. As much as we may want to make suggestions, open and honest communication more often comes from letting them do the talking. Teens want to be heard. Let them speak. Pay attention and show you care.
Talk with Teens, Not at Them
When we choose to lecture — to talk at our children — they hear our condescension, fear, and anger, but miss our intended message. Lectures often make teens wonder if we think they’re incapable of making good decisions. Worse, by lecturing them our intentions may backfire. We may unintentionally encourage them to prove us wrong.
We must talk to our teens. Try not to preach or judge. Our teens care about what others think of them. They want our approval. If they feel judged, especially over something important, they may end the conversation. Let them have their say before stating your concerns. I try to remind myself there are two-sides (sometimes more!) to every story.
Adolescence is filled with plenty of self-conscious moments. So, it’s natural that most teens want privacy when tackling tough topics. Public conversations can lead to public outbursts. They’re unlikely to have a positive outcome. Private conversations allow for feelings to be honestly expressed. When we give our kids privacy, they know that we are respecting their feelings.
Find the Right Environment
Understanding how and where teens prefer to communicate is important. Do they need to talk in a place where there are no distractions? Or feel more comfortable if there is music or TV playing in the background? Does it help for them to be doing something at the time, like making themselves a snack? Or do they function best with advanced notice? Every person is different. We learn their preferences over time. When not sure, show respect by asking them. Is this a good time to talk?
For some teens, it’s easier to tackle tough topics when they aren’t looking right at us. Try talking while doing some “side-by-side” activities. Examples include folding laundry, doing dishes or cooking. Some parents find talking in a car ideal as it offers privacy and avoids direct eye contact.
Use “Teachable Moments”
Having trouble getting the conversation started? Look out for movies or television shows depicting characters dealing with relationships, love, sex, drugs or other issues your teens may be questioning. It is another way to get everyone talking. By watching, the focus shifts from our teens to the characters on screen. Teens often feel more comfortable when they aren’t talking directly about themselves.
Be THERE for Them
Be present. Set aside smartphones, computers, TVs and other distractions. Give teens your undivided attention. It’s not that you can’t do anything else at the same time, but teens sense when you are distracted.
Many teens say it’s easier to talk with one parent at a time. Loving parents often want to work things out as a family. However, when it’s two parents and one child, it can feel like we’re ganging up on them. Sometimes this is tough because we want to be involved and working together. Consider having one parent lead the conversation, but have both involved behind the scenes.
Ask Subtle Questions
Let’s say your teen has just come home from a friend’s party. Asking, “Were kids drinking at the party?” is probably not going to get you the answer you were hoping for. It’s almost definitely not going to encourage your teen to tell you more. Reconsider your approach. Think of some less direct questions to get the conversation started. “I know the Jones always complain they have a small place. How’d they handle all the kids that showed up?” We don’t want to sound like detectives. Asking about things that seemingly matter less will help get the conversation started.
Ask Open-ended Questions
Open-ended questions require more than just a “yes” or “no” to answer and will keep conversations going. For example, “Did you have a nice day at school?” will likely elicit a response like, “Yes.” You’re left not really learning anything. On the other hand, “Tell me about your day at school,” will get the conversation flowing. Consider starting off sentences with “How did you like…” or “Why do you think…?” When we let teens know we genuinely want their opinions, they are much more likely to share their thoughts and feelings.
Strategies for Talking about Tough Topics
Parents must navigate all kinds of difficult topics with teens. Conversations about alcohol, drugs, and sex are just a few examples. Click through to learn effective strategies for making these talks as productive as possible.
Conversations are easier when you’re clear on the facts. Consult a trusted professional or read a book before diving into tough territory. It’s ok to tell teens you don’t know something. Just don’t forget to follow up.
Talk About Safety
It’s easier for teens to absorb your concerns if they aren’t on the defensive. They’re more likely to listen If you make the conversation about keeping them safe.
Determine the Best Environment
Conversations don’t have to be face-to-face. Consider talking in the car, while you’re taking a walk together, by email or even text. Some teens are more comfortable having conversations without direct eye contact.
Find Teachable Moments
Pop culture can be a helpful springboard for discussions about sexuality, drugs, and other tricky subjects. It allows you to talk without making things personal. If you watch television, listen to music, read a book, or go to the movies together you can ask questions and discuss what you’ve seen and heard.
Show Some Vulnerability
If you’re at all like me, it probably doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that you were a teenager! There will be times when it’s good to be candid about mistakes we’ve made. Letting them know we weren’t perfect can build trust. It’s interesting for them to hear a bit about how we felt when we were their age. By leveling the playing field we allow our teens to feel more comfortable being honest about their own situations. That said, consider carefully how much you reveal. Remember that anything you discuss (or imply) could be questioned later.
Have Ongoing Conversations
Think about talking with teens in an ongoing conversation. Some of the more difficult discussions may need to be broken up. Spread out over time. Talking for just a few minutes at a time may help teens become more comfortable. You’ll still teach them what they need to learn, just at a pace easier for them to digest.
What I Learned
I’m happy to report I was able to have a successful talk with my daughter. It wasn’t all easy. It involved doing a lot of listening and withholding judgment. I gave her a chance to tell me everything from her side. It turned out that she hadn’t been in the room when the photos were taken. No one had actually been drinking — just posing with the bottles and making what they thought were silly online comments. She wasn’t the photographer and didn’t appear in any pictures herself. But she was aware they were taken. And although she knew it probably wasn’t the best idea, she didn’t say anything to her friends.
A Productive Ending
I told her I understood it would have been hard to speak up. I encouraged her to think twice about her involvement if there’s ever a next time. I asked open-ended questions about what she thought might have happened if others saw these pictures. We had a productive conversation. We talked about how they were lucky that no one had been hurt and that the photos were taken down almost immediately. She learned that had things gone differently, there could have been some serious consequences. I tried my best to stay on point, to avoid launching into a lecture, and to keep my voice steady and calm. As a result, my daughter was honest with me about what had taken place.
It’s Worth the Effort
Sometimes communicating with teens feels like hard work — but it’s always worth the extra effort. With effective communication, we strengthen our connections. We support our teens to make better decisions today and build resilience for tomorrow. We show them how to hold important conversations as they move into adulthood.