Communicating with teens: an oxymoron?

The teen years are a time of transition from childhood to adulthood when teens undergo rapid physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual growth. As a child and adolescent psychologist, I see many families struggle with communication during this time, when family relationships change dramatically as teens complete their journey to becoming independent adults. Communication between parents and teens is so important during this time, and does not have to be an oxymoron.

Time well spent
I believe the most important step parents can take in establishing open lines of communication with their teen is to spend quality one-on-one time together – regularly. This will help teens feel more at ease and encourage them to talk more openly with their parents and to establish a strong parent-child connection. This also is an opportunity to talk casually about things that are going on in your teen’s life and to address more difficult topics. Quality time can be as simple as playing a game, going for a walk, sharing a meal or going somewhere together. But it doesn’t include playing video games, watching TV or seeing a movie because people usually don’t talk to each other much during these activities.

Conversation starters
One of the best ways to start a conversation with a teen is to ask his or her opinion about something. It may help to use current events or scenes from movies or TV shows as conversation starters, especially when talking about difficult topics such as sex or drug use. Once the conversation has been started, it is important to listen carefully to what your teen has to say.

Parents can help shape their teen’s thinking by asking gentle questions and using phrases such as, “Have you thought about . . .” and, “What would you do if . . .” Conversations about difficult topics often go more smoothly if you choose a time when you’re not rushed, there are no distractions, you focus only on one or two topics at a time, and you talk openly about any feelings of discomfort. And of course, parents should encourage their child to come to them if they have questions or concerns.

Be sure to make yourself available when your teen starts a conversation.
Finally, it’s essential that parents help their teen develop problem-solving and decision-making skills. To help teens make good decisions, I recommend that parents ask their children the following questions: What are your options in this situation? What are the possible outcomes of that choice? How would that choice affect yourself and others? After the teen has acted on the choice, help him or her assess the wisdom of the decision by asking, “Was that choice effective? What would you do differently in the future?” These skills will help teens learn to make good choices and grow into successful, independent adults.

It is crucial to keep the lines of communication open during this transitional time, when teens are facing tough decisions on their journey to adulthood. Communication is vital to every parent/child relationship, and certainly does not have to become an oxymoron in the teenage years.

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