Starting Important Conversations
Every conversation, from casual to challenging, is an opportunity for parents to guide teens. All journeys are easier with a plan. A plan for improving communication with teens starts by taking into consideration where, when and how you approach important conversations. We’ve summarized key conversation tips below. Keep a copy of this for easy reference. And, if you want even more of your “why” questions answered, read “How to Have Important Conversations with Teenagers.”
- Talk Early. Talk Often. Begin talking openly early and often — perhaps even earlier than you might think. This helps developing brains grow and creates stronger attachments and healthier relationships early on. Make chats with them the norm. By the time they hit adolescence, you’ll have learned what works for them as far as good times and places for important conversations.
- Know yourself! If you already have an often-voiced opinion about a topic, acknowledge that. Ask yourself. “Are you the best person to have this conversation now?” When our teens know exactly what we’re going to say, and if there’s no room for flexibility, they likely won’t engage.
- Be Calm. Don’t be Dramatic. If we can’t be calm we can’t expect our teens to be either. If we yell or overreact, our teens may block the conversation completely. Listen but don’t react unless safety is at risk. Take a time out and chill. Remain low-key. We don’t want our teens feeling they need to take care of us because we’re so emotional!
- Watch the Tone and Choice of Words. Avoid using a negative tone or accusatory words, like, “Why can’t you get yourself together?” Instead, try using an I Statement to explain how you feel. For example, “I feel frustrated when you are late because I know how important it is to be on time.” Your teen will be less defensive if they understand why you’re feeling a certain way.
- Listen and Empathize. It’s more effective to listen than to constantly offer suggestions and solutions. Sometimes listening requires practice. For the most open and honest communication let teens do most of the talking. Then, remind them that you understand things aren’t always easy. After all, you were once a teenager too.
- Talk with Teens, Not at Them. Teens want parental approval. Try not to preach, judge or lecture, especially about important topics. If they sense they’re being judged or talked down to, they may end the conversation. Minimizing feelings or telling them how to think is a non-starter. Telling teens what to do may make them feel like you don’t have confidence in them. They may hear anger, frustration, or fear, but miss the message. Instead, let them guide you on what they need.
- Choose a Preferred Talking Environment. When do your teens best connect with you and most comfortably share? Do they talk mostly in places with no distractions? Do they mellow out with music or TV in the background? Know what type of supportive environment is best and most comfortable.
- Talk One-On-One or Side by Side. Public conversations are on the “what to avoid” list. Especially because they may lead to public outbursts. Some teens prefer talking about certain topics when not looking at you directly in the eyes. Try talking during “side-by-side” activities like folding laundry, cooking, and even playing sports. The car works for some, but be sure you talk when there are no siblings or friends there. Also, realize that depending on the topic (sex, for example), your teen could feel trapped in a car.
- One Parent at a Time. While parents often want to work through things as a family, it can seem like you are ganging up on your teens at times. Depending on the topic, consider having only one parent involved with the actual talk, but be sure both parents are in agreement ahead of time.
- Be THERE. Be present for your teens when talking. Ignore smartphones, close computers and avoid other distractions. Give them your undivided attention. Let them know they’re center in your spotlight.
- Ask Subtle Questions. Try less direct questions as conversation starters. “Who were some of your friends at the party?” is going to be more effective than, “Were there drugs at the party?” Avoid playing detective or taking an accusatory tone. By asking about seemingly lesser things and using open-ended questions, you’ll learn more. Try “What did you think about ______?” or other opinion-eliciting questions that can lead to more open communication. If you have hard evidence of some misdeed, check out this piece for an example of how to start the conversation and keep it going.
- Show Vulnerability. Letting your teens know you’ve made mistakes can build trust. But be careful what you choose to say. If you talk about a situation in which you took an unsafe or immoral risk, that could come back to you down the line. If it does, be prepared to share the lesson you learned and state that while all people make mistakes you work hard to make safe and moral choices.
- Use Teachable Moments. Teens can sometimes hear things easier when they are not directly confronted about their behavior or made to “confess” what they have done. Don’t read this wrong — sometimes a direct approach is best, especially when a teen comes to you with a problem. But for general lessons you want to teach, look for opportunities that arise. Notice things you’re driving past. Watch various media together and (occasionally) talk about the lessons learned from the characters’ choices. Listen to music and discuss the subtle and not-so-subtle messages. These offer great conversation starters where values can be clarified and developed in a neutral setting.
- Continue Conversations into the Future. Think about talking with teens in an ongoing conversation. Some of the harder chats you have together may require breaking them up into segments over time. Consider sending a positive text that keeps the conversation going. “It meant a lot that you shared _______ with me. I’m here whenever you want to talk.”
It’s worth being intentional about how you communicate with your teens. It is one area of your life where your effort will really pay off. We know that teens who have open communication with caring adults feel better about themselves, are more likely to avoid peer pressure, and build the resilience to handle life’s curveballs.