Communicating with teenagers: top tips for parents
Good communication is essential for building and maintaining relationships – chatting, sharing experiences, resolving problems and agreeing ground-rules. Which can be a bit of a problem when it comes to communicating with teenagers since hanging out with mum or dad isn’t always their top priority. The teenage years involve a major shift in parents’ relationships with their children as power and decision-making are handed over from parent to child. And along with this striving for independence comes an inevitable degree of pushback and rejection – of you, your habits and values, and of your right to know their thoughts. Maintaining good communication during this process can be challenging!
All teens are different and between the ages of 11 and 19 an individual teenager may undergo many transformations (so remember to enjoy the good bits!). But here are some practical tips on communicating with teenagers to help keep those channels open through the difficult bits.
Choose your moment
By which, of course, I mean choose their moment. When communicating with teenagers you need to accept that you are no longer Number One in their life. If there is an online conversation going on with their friends (or even just a silly cat video on Facebook to watch) then that is going to take priority over talking to you. And it’s hard to shoehorn a meaningful conversation into a brief meeting on the stairs. Communicating with teenagers therefore involves a lot of time – being in their company, hanging out, doing things they enjoy doing, talking about meaningless stuff until the right moment presents itself for a few minutes of real communication to take place. It is a worthwhile investment – those little nuggets of communication are the thread that holds together your relationship. And choose the wrong moment to bring up something difficult and you can set yourself back several steps. (See Parenting teenagers without conflict for more on this).
When it comes to communicating with teenagers, conversations when you are sitting side-by-side (such as in the car or on the sofa) or when you are doing something else together (watching TV or cooking a meal) often flow more easily than talking face-to-face. Direct adult questioning often leads teens to conclude that you are trying to find something out (their secret thoughts or what they’ve done wrong) which will bring the shutters straight down. If you have something difficult to talk about, try going for a drive together.
Don’t talk about them
The indirect approach often works best when communicating with teenagers. Talk about their favourite TV programme (whilst watching it together). Talk about yourself, the neighbours, family members, or celebrities. Teenagers will often engage enthusiastically in conversations about other people – in a way that really helps you stay in touch with their thought processes, their values and opinions. Plot lines in films and soaps are great launch pads for discussions about relationships and social issues. If you want to talk about future career options, watch The Apprentice together. If you want to talk about effort and reward, talk about sport.
Family meetings are a great mechanism for planning family activities and for agreeing family ground-rules. They can be formal or informal (ours involve cake) but should always be short. Everyone gets to contribute their ideas and thoughts and as a family you come up with agreed solutions or actions. Some teenagers (and younger children) throw themselves into family meetings whilst others take a bit of convincing and might try to sabotage them at first with negative behaviour or comments. Stick with it, ignore any silly behaviour, and acknowledge all contributions (no matter how impractical). And make sure there are some quick wins in terms of changes or activities that your teenager wants. Over time they will learn that you pay attention to their suggestions and value their ideas.
Be a good role model
Remember that old adage “Speak how you would be spoken to”?! You need to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to communicating with teenagers. Model the style of communication you’d like your teenager to adopt. If you use sarcasm, or shout, or belittle others then you must expect that to come straight back at you.
Stay calm – and beat a retreat
Faced with an emotional teenager, the priority is to stay calm and remember you’re the grown up. Listen to what they are saying and summarise it back to them (quietly): “So you are angry because you can’t go to the sleepover.” It is important that you give a name to the emotion they are expressing – this will help them to find a way to talk about that emotion. Don’t try and solve the problem, your teenager needs to calm down first. Often, being spoken to quietly and having their emotions acknowledged will start the calming down process. If not, try once more, and if it doesn’t work then beat a strategic retreat. “You are not ready to talk calmly about this. I’m going to walk the dog and I’ll come back in half an hour when you’ve calmed down.” Don’t stay and engage – the chances are that you will also end up angry and emotional and it will all go downhill from there. Walk away! Conversations are much better conducted when you are both able to couch your thoughts calmly and constructively. (See How do I cope with teenage tantrums for more on this).
Good luck and happy parenting!
This post was originally commissioned by Barclays as part of a programme of support for its working parents.