Top 10 Ways to Communicate With Your Adolescent

By Kelly Wickham

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng
I fancy myself something of an expert on teenagers both because I work with them daily and because I’ve lived to tell the tale of being a parent of teens. Somehow, I feel like I’m winning at life because they didn’t drag me down to the depths of you-know-where during those years. The worst of them, for me, was middle school when they knew everything and wanted to convince me of that detail. Ahh, the hubris of the young. They don’t take into account the fact that I was once a teenager myself.

You don’t need a doctoral degree in communications to be able to speak with your teenagers, but there are some tried-and-true common sense rules. Dealing with adolescents means that, as they grow, they have an increased need for independence and are trying out new identities. Naturally, they experience great physical changes, but as their brains change they also desire to be more secretive and private in their relationships. All of this is maddening to parents who think, “I thought I knew my child! What happened?”

In talking to teens and parents about communicating I have compiled a list of things that work during adolescence, a period of seemingly endless arguments and miscommunications. Now, I’m not suggesting that everything was peaceful and rosy during those years, but I do know that parents have to change the way they’ve been communicating with their children once they enter the period of adolescence. Here are 10 tips on communicating with adolescents that I have tried over the years:

1. Define the issues (moral versus how they’re feeling). Remove all defensiveness out of the equation when talking to teens. Of course, a lot of what they’re feeling is emotional due to brain changes and what they feel is intensified. Defining issues for them is crucial for their perspective but remember that their perspective is their reality, even if they’re looking at it the “wrong” way.

2. Avoid lecturing and nagging. Use the teachable moments that present themselves and listen more to their body language when discussing important issues. If you only lecture they will learn to only respond with numbness because, in their heads, they’re thinking, “I’ve heard all this before.” Remember that this is a conversation, not a chance to take them on a guilt trip.

3. Create some fair and reasonable rules for parenting an adolescent. It might seem silly, but this actually came in handy for me as a parent. Find some time to sit down with your adolescents and create some rules. Focus on the fact that rules keep them safe and ask them what they believe is a fair compromise. Setting these limits helps to respect their opinions and feelings while focusing on their safety and well-being. Each time I asked my teens what reasonable limits would be to keep them safe they often created harsher limits than I would have set in the first place. To protect yourself as a parent, make sure you add this caveat: All negotiations are subject to change.

4. Use a journal.During the adolescent communication breakdown, you may find that your teen or tween isn’t interested in talking to you face-to-face. Put important compromises in writing in a journal that can be accessed by both you and your child. My daughter and I did this to great effect. If she wanted to simply tell me something but not have a lecture in response, she wrote NO RESPONSE at the bottom of the page.

5. Social media. According to the latest Pew Internet Research, a full 63% of adult cell phone users are online which doubled since their research began in 2009. In their research that was published just six months ago, Pew found that 72% of online adults use social media. Somewhere in those findings, you’ll note that parents and their teenagers are conversing. This particular tip comes with this strongly worded advice: make sure you set rules about how you converse on social media. My friend, Jane, uses it in a really funny way when she wants her children to do something (i.e. a tweet that reads “Jordan, come and do these dishes NOW”), but this can backfire depending on your relationship with your child. Sometimes, all it takes is a “like” on Facebook or a “love” on Instagram for kids to know their parents are watching.

6. Stay away from criticism and ridicule. My parents loved to use the phrase, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge …”but it just annoyed me. Using sarcasm doesn’t often help when dealing with the black-and-white thinkers of adolescence, but definitely be wary of speaking in tones that criticize and make fun of them. Joking, as a form of communication, often works towards the end of a conversation with them and is best received with a hug or an arm around them.

7. Ask curious vs. pointed questions. During your communication times with teens, it’s important to put them in the driver’s seat so that you can understand where they’re coming from; in fact, this is more important to them than where you stand. Sometimes when we question them, these seem like attacks, so be sure that your questions are curious in nature. A good starter phrase is, “I’m wondering about something and I think you can help me. Can you explain …”

8. Remove emotionality. When my oldest came home from college after the first year, she finally understood what I was doing as a parent during her adolescence. She had just spent nine months at university not telling me where she was or what she was doing, so when she strolled in at three a.m. I was furious with her. I explained that when she’s not here I stay up and worry and run to the window at every noise to see if she’s safe. Finally I asked what a reasonable compromise would be to this that allowed her some autonomy and me some peace. She agreed to text me an approximation of her arrival or if she was going to spend the night at a friend’s house. All of a sudden, my emotional Why isn’t she thinking of ME? moment was gone and she could better hear me explain my position. Removing the emotion and telling her that my behavior changes when she doesn’t let me know that she’s safe helped us get to a better compromise.

9. Respond reasonably and truthfully. The most hated retort I get from teenagers is and was the I don’t care response. Adolescents listen best when both parties have clear heads and calm words. Just because they’re getting older doesn’t mean we change the truth for them, but parents can couch their words differently during this time. By the way, the best response to their “I don’t care” is this: “I know. I will have to care for you until you’re ready to care.”

10. Take a time out. It’s okay to walk away from your adolescent during heated moments. I’ve been known to use my hands like a referee and exclaim, “Hold on! T for Time Out!” and it gives us a break when we’re at an impasse. Being emotional isn’t a bad thing; it’s just that they’re teenagers. They’re better at being emotional and dramatic than we are. Give yourself permission to take a break and tell your teen to come and find you when they’re ready to listen. It gives them some power and helps them to realize that you’re a human being (though they still won’t believe you).

7 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Communicate With Your Adolescent

  1. I printed it, Audrey. I love the journal idea. My girls are verbal. I’m sure that comes as no surprise to anyone. Thanks for this insightful post, Kelly. Oh, and you’ve used #7 with me. Guess you perceive me as youthful. 🙂

  2. Excellent advice, Kelly! I think the journal idea is a must try for us. I think that one of your best pieces of advice- leaving the emotionality out of it- is also, perhaps, the most difficult, especially with the girls.

  3. I still offer that to the parents of my students, Khadijah. They end up loving it and telling me how much easier it is to talk to their teen!

    Report back and let me know how that goes!

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