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How to Talk So Teens Will Listen


1) Connect before you correct

Grownups, I want you to be aware of this one, because it is so common to skip connecting and go straight to correcting, especially when you first see your teen after school.  With how much information the school shares these days, you likely know if your teen was in school every period, if they were tardy, or if they are missing an assignment. 

It’s easy to come out the gate with the laundry list of things your teen needs to do and want to figure out why the h-e-double-hockey-sticks they haven’t done it yet. 

I get it.  It can be frustrating when they aren’t behaving the way you expect them to behave.  It doesn’t feel good though for your teen to hear the second they walk in the door all the things they’re doing wrong. 

How do you feel when a loved one ignores all the good you’ve done and focuses on the bad? 

It doesn’t feel great.  In fact, if you’re being honest, it likely doesn’t make you want to try at all.  It’s the same with teens. 

Let’s say your teen was late to a class today or even skipped the class entirely.  Guess what?  That means they made it to three or four other classes on time!  And maybe talking about attendance isn’t the first thing you want to address. 

If you happen to be home when your teen gets home or you’re picking your teen up from school or extracurriculars, remember, they just got done with a day at work. 

School is work.  They’re navigating 8-10 different bosses (teachers, coaches, administrators), 100+ co-workers (20-30 per class), juggling deadlines (assignment due dates), and projects (tests, projects). 

The last thing they need when they get done with a day at the office is to feel like they stink, because out of the 100 tasks they completed today at work, they made a mistake or failed at one of them.  So make it a point to put aside the parenting for a minute and connect with them human to human. 

Smile!  Look them in the eye.  Have a snack for them or bring one when you pick them up, even if it’s just a bottle of water. 

Check in about something they told you.  For example, “I know you were up late studying for your science exam today.  How did it go?”  Or ask about their friends, “Katie tried out for the cheer team today, right?  What did she say about the tryouts?” 

There is SO  much responsibility in parenting.  It can feel like, “if I don’t bring up the missed class, I’m condoning skipping classes.”  And that’s simply not true. 

In order for a teen to listen and respect a grownup, they need to feel like a grown up cares about them.  And we do this by connecting first.  

2) Watch your tone

You know there are different ways to say the same thing.  This all comes down to tone of voice.  If you say, “I saw you missed third period” in a neutral calm way, this keeps the door open to communication versus in an angry, shaming way which will slam the door right in your face. 

I don’t feel the need to wax poetic about this one, because if we’ve been living on this planet, we’ve all been on the receiving end of warm, positive tone and cold, sharp tone. 

There are times, as a grownup, when it’s more important to watch your tone and this has to do with a couple things:

A) How you, the grownup is doing. 

Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  If so, you need to HALT and regulate yourself before talking with your teen. 

It’s super easy to have a tone you wouldn’t typically use if you fall under one of those categories. 

B) Consider the issue. 

If you’ve been parenting your child for awhile, you’re going to know what pushes your buttons. 

The joy of parenting teens is you probably find out new things every week, which trigger buttons you didn’t even know you had! 

Again, it’s normal when your buttons are pushed and you “flip your lid” to respond with a tone you wouldn’t typically use. 

Your job as the grownup in the situation is to learn to be aware of what pushes your buttons and to do what you need to and regulate before addressing a hot button issue. 

You are human.  You will have your buttons pushed as a parent.  That’s normal and part of the experience of parenting.  You will make mistakes and you will use an unkind, critical, sarcastic, or otherwise disconnecting tone at some point or another. 

It won’t ruin your relationship with your teen, as long as you’re aware of yourself and apologize when needed. 

Apologies go a long way in building a connecting relationship with your teen.  It’s a big deal when a grown up owns up to something (i.e. I’m sorry I snapped at you.  I was hungry.  I was frustrated about you not completing the chore I asked you, and it was not okay for me to talk to you in that tone.”) 

I invite you to take this info or leave it.  I know this can be controversial, especially in families or cultures where respect goes one way (from child to parent). 

At the same time, if you’re here, reading this blog post, then it tells me you are a long-game parent and are thinking about how to stay connected to your child through the teen years and beyond.  

3) Be curious not judgmental 

This goes for your own self-talk too, though let’s focus on talking to your teen for now. 

First, I’m going to ask you though to give your teen the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s live in a universe where your teen is doing the best they can (as are you as the parent), and if something’s not getting down the way you expect, then it’s your job to be curious about why. 

Phrases like, “can you help me understand [why this assignment didn’t get completed]?” go a long way to having a relationship where your teen wants to talk with you about hard things. 

If you want a true, real answer, then curiosity will get you a lot further than judgment. 

I want you to pause before you raise a tough issue or confront your teen on something.  I want you to think about the purpose of the conversation.  Are you simply wanting to tell your teen what they did was wrong or do you want to learn more about how your teen’s mind works and how they arrived at the decision they made? 

If you want the latter, then you absolutely have to be curious and non-judgmental.  Otherwise your teen will snap shutter faster than an oyster protecting a pearl. 

I’m going to be honest, from where I’m sitting as a stepparent to teens and a teen therapist, a parents’ role in the teenage years (especially the later ones) is less about teaching and more about discovering. 

You have the opportunity now to discover how your teen makes decisions, what’s important to them, and what they want for themselves. 

If you are concerned about the choices they are making around peers, substance use, or self-harm, then it’s extra important to come at them with humility and curiosity. 

In reality, you may not understand the decisions they’re making and maybe they don’t yet either.  At the same time, it’s up to them to figure it out for themselves. 

They are the ones they have to live with, and they won’t have you around forever. 

The more you talk with them about their decisions and helping them think through their choices for themselves, the more you are helping them develop their pre-frontal cortex or “wise owl” part of the brain where rational thought, planning, and critical thinking are done. 

It’s hard to do, and it’s an important part of them learning to think for themselves.  

So, those are just a few ways to think about how you talk, so your teen will listen. 

Parenting teens is really a long term endeavor.  Not as far as the amount of time you’ll be parenting them but in the idea of what you want your relationship to be like with your child once they become an adult. 

If you are able to implement these tools when you talk to your teen, you’re much more likely to stay connected through the turbulent teen years and remain connected even when they fly the coop.  

If your teen is disconnected and withdrawn from you, and you’re worried about their safety or mental health, reach out for a FREE 15-minute phone consultation at 737-808-4888 or using the secure contact form.  I love helping teens build confidence and joy from within.  Connect with me today.    

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