How to Talk to Your Teen About Anything

Many readers of Nurturing Parent-Teen Connection Through Conversations About Identity commented that the ideas in that post could be generalized to other “heavy stuff” that parents discuss their teens. I agree! This feedback got me thinking: What does it take for a parent to be able to talk openly with their teen about…anything?

Perhaps surprisingly, a few essential principles can open the door to supportive and impactful dialogue, no matter how “tough” the topic. Let’s take a quick look at three more practices to help you tackle any issue with your teenager.

Set expectations around tone

Even parents who generally feel comfortable talking about sensitive issues with their teens sometimes come away from these conversations feeling disrespected, and in turn, resentful. In these cases, try not to assume that the topic itself is the issue. The problem may be how your teen is responding to you.

It can be useful to plainly set limits and expectations around tone. (Of course, you will also need to model the expected behaviors. Adolescents are keenly attuned to hypocrisy.) Teaching young people about the importance of tone benefits you both. First, you are able to advocate for the respect you deserve–not just because you are their parent, but because you are a fellow human in a conversation with them. Second, your teen learns to communicate their ideas and needs in ways that will be more hearable to others. They will soon discover that this capacity to speak assertively and respectfully creates a compounding positive effect in any relationship.

Simply providing your teen with information about the importance of tone can be effective. In my practice, I share with clients what the research on communication styles clearly demonstrates: that tone and body language carry most of the weight in any message. In fact, experts suggest that words account for as little as 7% of any message received. Listeners gather 93% of the information they absorb from their conversation partner via tone and body language! Most teens are fascinated by this statistic, and they quickly start drawing personal connections to its implications. Let your teen apply this learning to their conversations with you. Ask: When have you noticed that your tone may send a harsher message than your words? If you are open to their feedback, you might ask them the same question about your communication to them!

Share power, maintain your parental authority

When teenagers view themselves as more informed about an issue than their parents, they are especially vulnerable to choosing a disrespectful tone. One way to move beyond the tired dynamic of “parent-nagging-teen-about-behavior” could be to convey that your teen’s apparent expertise places them in a teaching role. Challenge your teen to exercise their best teaching skills when sharing their knowledge with you. Perhaps suggest that they try modeling their actions after a teacher whom they admire. Ask: How might [this teacher] explain this in a way that is respectful to you as a fellow human? What might [this teacher] do to make you want to keep learning?

Conversely, many parents find that their own mindset about being “the student” matters. Demonstrating equanimity and a willingness to learn when you encounter something new is invaluable modeling. In these conversations, you can show your teen how to “be wrong, well.” For example, if they inform you that you’ve used the wrong pronoun when referring to one of their friends, you could respond sincerely and evenly, “I apologize. Thank you for telling me,” restate your sentence with the correct pronoun, and continue the conversation. In your tone and demeanor you demonstrate how to pause, own a mistake in your actions, and maintain the distinction between actions and self-worth. If your teen’s remark was delivered with a tone that did not work for you, then squarely address that issue as well.

Remember, a power struggle takes two. No matter the imbalance in know-how around a topic, you are still the parent. The more grounded you remain in your enduring role, the more likely you will be able to model the behavior you want your teen to learn.

Help your teen to organize the conversation

When a topic is “big” or “sensitive”, parents can help make these conversations manageable by structuring and containing the narrative–the adolescent equivalent to toddler-proofing, if you will. Sometimes teens are clear about what they want to address, and on other occasions the issue is precisely that there are so many issues, and they need help drawing connections, and boundaries, between ideas.

You are practiced at listening “between the lines” for the themes in your child’s thought process. Now is a good time to apply this skill. For example, at core, is your teen asking for your advice, or just your ear? Is your teen trying to tell her story or hear yours? Reflect to your teen what you are hearing them say, and when you notice that a jumble of themes are present, help them to identify where they would like the conversation to go. “We were just talking about your identity as boy, and that seemed really interesting to you. Now I’m hearing you focus a bit more on what feminism means to you. Which topic feels more important to tackle right now? Which topic would you like to save for later, maybe on the way to practice?” In this way, you validate the importance of each issue, and you model how to organize ideas and how to pace complex conversation.

Choose to talk about it

Remember, the simple act of choosing to broach a sensitive issue with your teen can be powerfully supportive. You are showing your teen both that this issue is not off limits, and that you can handle tackling it, together.

How about you?

You’ve already been talking with your teen for years! What strategies have you found helpful for encouraging open conversation with your teen? I am always eager to hear reader feedback and parenting success stories. Please share your thoughts via email at dvoake@ca-mh.com.

Devon Voake, MS, LCMHC works with families, children, adolescents, and young adults at our Upper Valley location. She specializes in supporting teens and young adults around the intersection of identity development and mental health. Devon has particular expertise in issues related to gender identity development, sexual identity development, and racial identity development.


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