How to talk with your teenager

Teenagers say that parents are the most important influence when it comes to drugs and alcohol. That's why it's important to talk — and listen — to your teen. A lot. Take a walk or go for a drive with him. When there's not much eye contact, he won't feel like he's under a microscope. Here’s a look at how brain development can affect teen communication, plus advice on how to talk with your teenager:


Your teen could be lacking communication skills. It's a brain thing.

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Because his Prefrontal Cortex isn't mature, he has a terrible time with facial expressions. (You may feel surprised, but he thinks you're angry.) Add that to his tendency to act on impulse (over-reactive Amygdala) and his limited emotional control (Prefrontal Cortex again), and you've got a recipe for major communication problems.1

Here's another thing: Your teen may act up around you because there's hardly any risk in it. No matter how horrible he is, he knows you won't ditch him (though his friends probably would).2 He's testing his limits with you because he feels safe. Think of it a compliment.

1 David Walsh, Why Do They Act That Way? 77-79
2 Walsh, 82

Active listening can clue you in to what's really bugging him.

The next time your teen flies off the handle, try using "active listening" to get past the emotions and on to what's really bugging him. It works like this: You listen without interrupting (no matter what), then sum up what you heard for him to confirm. In the end, you get clear on his problem and he feels understood.1

Once he's had his say, you might start with:

  • It seems like you're feeling...
  • I hear you say you're feeling...
  • I wonder if you're feeling...
  • Am I right that you're feeling...

Then describe the emotions you saw:

  • It sounds to me like you're feeling hurt and angry. Is that true?
  • I hear you saying that you're overwhelmed. Am I right?

Or, use a figure of speech if that works better:

  • It seems like you're at end of your rope. Is that right?
  • Are you feeling like that situation is out of control?

Don't worry about whether you're right or wrong — his response will guide you. That's how the connection begins.

1 Sandra Boston de Silvia. Aiming Your Mind: Strategies and Skills for Conscious Communication, 47

"I" statements keep the flow going.

Having your say can be tricky. If he feels like he's being judged or blamed, the connection ends. (He can't hear you because he's busy thinking up his defense.) "I" statements let you express yourself without attacking your teenager. You describe his behavior, how you feel about it, and how it affects you.1 Then you spell out what you need. Like this:

  • "When you don't come home on time, I worry that something terrible has happened. What I need is for you to call me as soon as you know you're going to be late so that I know you're okay."
  • "I feel like you can't hear what I have to say when you're so mad. Then I get frustrated. I need to talk about this later when we're both able to listen."
  • "Because I love you and I want to keep you safe, I worry about you going to the concert. I need to know that you will obey our rules about not drinking or using drugs."

With "I" statements, you use persuasion (not control or blame) to cause a change in his behavior. You also allow him to help decide what happens next — another key to bonding.1

1 Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training, 129


Get some practice here first, then try it with your teenager.

Check out active listening and "I" statements in action. Read each scene, then click a response to see how well it works. To explore all the angles, just click "Back" and choose a different response.

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Not getting through? Don't sweat it.

Conversations get derailed sometimes. It happens to everyone. Just remember that most parents feel like they’re at a loss for how to talk with teenagers. Here are a few tips for putting things back on track:

  • Remember how moody you were as a teen? And how frustrating it was trying to express yourself? Your teen is in that boat now. So when he has an outburst, cut him some slack. It's normal.
  • Don't worry about getting it all right the first time. In fact, if you're struggling with a really hard subject, tackle it in a series of small talks instead of one big one. You may have better luck making your point.
  • Don't be afraid to admit that you made a mistake and apologize for it. Reminding our teenagers that we're human doesn't have to damage our authority.
  • Learn how to recognize typical teen behavior. It can help you keep your emotions under control and save you from falling into the same traps over and over.
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