Teens And Parents: Up Your Communication Game

Parent-Teen Communication

Need help talking with your teen? New research suggests your adolescent’s primary care provider may be one of your most valuable resources, encouraging conversations and suggesting strategies for making communication uplifting and meaningful.

Boosting Your Teen’s Desire to Talk

The study took place within a single pediatric practice in Philadelphia. After a routine appointment (and when they got home), parents and teens were asked to discuss each other’s strengths. To guide the discussion , the provider supplied a list of characteristics on a piece of paper. Choices included qualities such as “kind,” “curious,” and “ambitious” along with dozens of others. Parents and teens could also pick attributes of their own choosing as well.

The results? 

The “Talking About Strengths” activity positively impacted the way teens perceive communication with their parents. 98% of parents and nearly 100% of teens reported the exercise was “Excellent,” “Very Good,” or “Good.” This is important because effective parent-teen communication is vital for the long-term well-being of youth, no matter their gender, race, or sexual orientation. 

“I do think pediatricians have a part to play with how family members engage with one another,” says Dr. Emily Koelsch, a pediatrician in Sleepy Hollow, New York division of Boston Children’s Health Physicians. [Disclosure: My son and daughter have been patients here for more than 10 years.] 

“In our practice, we look at the whole family dynamic to paint the broadest picture we can of our kids. None of the physicians here would feel this kind of exercise is beyond our lane,” she shared. 

Being thought of as “generous” made me feel appreciated. It made me feel seen.

Testing the Study With My Daughter

As the parent of a teenager, I was curious to give the activity a try. So, my daughter and I reviewed the instructions and got started. We each had our own version — the “Parent” copy and the “Teen” copy. We were asked to spend 10 minutes writing down five strengths we most associate with ourselves and five we most associate with the other. Following that, we were encouraged to spend 10 more minutes discussing the results, using the below prompts as a guide:

  • Why did you choose these strengths for yourself ?
  • Why did you choose these strengths for your parent?
  • Give examples of the ways in which your parent demonstrates the strengths you chose.
  • Did your parent choose strengths that you didn’t expect? Do you now see that strength in yourself?
  • Did you find this discussion helpful? If yes, how so?
  • Can you imagine having a discussion like this again?

One of the strengths I chose for my daughter was “resilient.” I asked her why she thought I selected that characteristic and she immediately thought I was referring to the time she broke her leg in gymnastics class. It was an accident, an uneven landing on her foot that cracked her tibia. She endured months of physical therapy but generally got through the ordeal with a smile. Even though this story of resilience has become family legend, I chose the attribute for another reason entirely. 

Throughout high school, I’ve been amazed by my daughter’s ability to develop friendships with multiple peer groups – her volleyball teammates; her friends from camp; her classmates. When one relationship hits a rocky patch (as friendships often do), she’s able to lean on another. She’s created a support system that no matter the ever-changing pattern of teenage friendships, she’s never isolated. My daughter’s eyes opened wider in recognition of what I was saying but also with the realization that her friendships could be a sign of resilience. This made her feel good about herself in a whole new way. And I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to share this revelation with my daughter if it hadn’t been for this strengths-focused exercise.

What My Daughter Had to Say

As for me, my daughter chose “generous.” This surprised me. A lot. I don’t think of myself as a particularly generous person. If I’m being honest, I can’t remember the last time I generously volunteered my time at her school. But similar to the way my example surprised her, my daughter’s definition of generous amazed me. 

“Mom,” she said, “You make me breakfast every day.” 

I never thought scrambling eggs was an act of generosity. I just considered it meal prep, something I do automatically, like brushing my teeth. But she called my actions generous because I get up earlier than I might otherwise, and I always make something she’ll enjoy.  

Being thought of as “generous” made me feel appreciated. It made me feel seen. It made me feel great! I’m certain she and I would never have had such a meaningful conversation if it hadn’t been for the “Talking About Strengths” activity. Parents who participated in the study had similar reactions. They reported the exercise helped them learn something new about themselves and heightened their awareness of how their teenager viewed them. 

Stay in touch with the Center for Parent and Teen Communication to find out when this exercise will be made available. Sign up for our e-newsletter for weekly updates! 

About the Study

The study included 120 pairs of parents (or caregivers) and teenagers. All teens were between the ages of 13-15 years. Participating families were recruited from one pediatric practice within the Pediatrics Research Consortium at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The study was developed and conducted in partnership with Victoria A. Miller, Karol Silva, Elizabeth Friedrich, Reyneris Robles, and Carol A. Ford. Primary funding was provided by the John Templeton Foundation.

Art by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

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 www.allisongilbert.com.

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