Ever struggle to figure out how to get your teen to talk to you? And then when they do talk to you, is it hard to say the right thing? If you’re nodding right now… you’re not alone. This is pretty much the experience of most parents.
Parenting is tricky… one minute you’re trying to get them down for a nap or helping them master toilet training, and the next you’re realizing that they’re nearly an adult, complete with their own thoughts and opinions, eye-rolling, and shoulder shrugs. So let’s talk about some tips on how to talk to your teen in a way that will help strengthen your relationship with them, instead of pulling it apart. These tips are from the books The Whole-Brain Child and The Yes Brain by Daniel Siegel, MD, and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD.
First things first: brain development. Each part of the brain serves a different purpose, and in teens, one critical part, the prefrontal cortex, is still developing. This area—responsible for sound decision making, planning, control over emotions and body, self-understanding, empathy, and morality—is not fully developed until our mid-20s. Yet it’s essential to our overall functioning and ability to understand our world. Because your teen’s brain is undergoing such a major overhaul, your teen is going to need your help to navigate their choices and gain perspective on what they are experiencing.
Which leads to the question: How do we help them when they won’t listen? This is the single most common battle for most parents. They see there are things they need to teach their teen or ways they could help, but it’s hard to get the teen to receive those messages.
Here are a few strategies that may help you communicate with your teen:
Connect to Redirect
This may be my personal favorite strategy because it is easy to remember and works so well. If your teen is emotionally upset about something or angry at you, this is a great way to get the conversation back on track. Connect with their feelings first and then redirect to reasoning and logic. This could look something like this:
Teen: “Seriously?!? You won’t let me go!? I can’t believe you are being like this!”
Parent: “I can see how angry you are right now. This must feel so frustrating. I can imagine what it’s like to feel like you aren’t being understood. Is that how this feels?”
Teen: “You just don’t get it. You don’t know what it’s like.”
Parent: “I don’t. You’re right. But I do want to understand as much as I can. I also need to protect you and try to help you make good decisions. I care about your future and don’t want you to get hurt.”
In this example, the parent starts out just listening and connecting to their emotion. Then, they begin to explain more of their reasoning to their teen.
Name It to Tame It
Helping a teen name their emotions helps pull them back into their prefrontal cortex (the area that helps with reasoning and seeing the whole picture), which can assist them in stepping back from what they’re going through and see things from a new viewpoint. Similarly, having your teen tell you the story of what happened, including how they felt, helps them make sense of their experience: They begin to see the whole picture instead of feeling overwhelmed. The Name-It-to-Tame-It idea is a great example of why getting your teen into counseling when they are going through something can be so helpful. Counseling gives them a chance to talk through their experiences with a trained therapist who similarly has that adult, outside perspective.
Engage, Don’t Enrage
Ask questions. Help your teen think through what they should and shouldn’t do. Many times, teens don’t want to hear answers right away. Even though this can be frustrating for the parent, who has wisdom and past experiences they want to provide, it’s actually helpful to allow the teen to process their own thoughts and work to make their own good decisions. It also builds respect and trust. If your teen wants to go do something that you’re against, have them talk you through their thoughts on why they should be able to go. By doing this, you’re not only helping them become better decision makers and develop autonomy, you’re also strengthening your relationship with them. Here is how this might go:
Teen: “Everybody is going to this big party at this other school. We don’t really know anyone there, but everybody is going. Can I go?”
Parent: “What do you think might happen at a party like that?”
Teen: “I mean, there might be drinking and stuff. But I mean, I’m not going to do that stuff. I just want to be there.”
Parent: “What would you do if people are underage drinking at the party? What would your plan be?”
Teen: “I would just not do it.”
Parent: “What would you do if the police come? What would you do if all your friends start drinking and you’re the only one that’s saying no?”
Warning: This is hard! We want to control everything for our teens. We want to protect them. Absolutely! And in the end, you can still tell them no, they can’t go to the party or you might be able to reach some type of compromise. However, helping them think things through will help them make sound decisions on their own. It might also help them understand your reasoning as well.
Move It or Lose It
Studies show that moving our bodies directly affects brain chemistry. When we begin to get upset and lose touch with our prefrontal cortex, movement can bring us back. So if things start escalating with your teen and emotions are getting high…stop. If you can, go for a walk with them. Tell them you need a minute and go walk around the house or do some stretching and recommend they do the same. These actions will help both you and your teen reset.
Sometimes you just need to take a time out for a moment and gather yourself. When emotions run high and the conversation is escalating, the end result is almost never productive. In addition, telling your teen you need a moment is a great way to teach them emotional regulation. It also helps them see that you aren’t perfect…one thing teens love to see!
What’s the End Goal?
This is my own personal strategy that I have learned so far in parenting a teen. When I’m in a talk with my teen, it’s easy to lose focus and begin striving toward getting my way or controlling the situation. It has been helpful for me to continually ask myself, “What is my end goal here?” which helps pull me back to what’s most important. I like to imagine I’m on a bridge and I’m walking with my teen to the other side. This image helps me stay focused on my relationship with them and not on winning an argument or controlling the situation.
Parenting a teen is one of the hardest and yet potentially most rewarding times of parenthood. If you and your teen are struggling to connect, family therapy can be extremely helpful in turning things in the right direction. Talking to a therapist can also help you learn how to interact with your teen improve your communication and help you feel more connected. And finally, if your teen is going through a lot of changes or having a hard time, having them see a counselor can be a wonderful way for them to connect with their emotions, understand what they are going through, and cope more effectively.