Parenting is difficult, even on our best days. Just when you think you know what you’re doing, your kids throw you a curveball and knock you off your feet. This is true for every phase of parenting, but raising teenagers comes with its own set of struggles. Communicating with teenagers is often difficult.
Why is communication important?
Having a healthy parent-child relationship during the teenage years is crucial. Teens make decisions about various things in their lives that can have real long-term consequences. These include school, friends, substance abuse, and even sex.
These decisions are made during a period when kids lack the maturity to truly regulate their emotions. Thus, outbursts and meltdowns are frequent occurrences. Being able to communicate freely and openly in a trusting relationship with a parent is thus extremely valuable.
I know what you’re thinking. “I try to talk to my teen, but she’s shutting me out and doesn’t listen to a word I’m saying.” Don’t despair for there’s hope. Let’s look at some ways to talk to your teen and have them listen to you.
How to talk so teens will listen and feel loved
Many studies have been done on this topic, and it seems that the steps we as parents can take to get our teens to listen and feel loved are actually pretty simple and very effective.
It’s imperative for a teen to know that they are loved. They need to feel loved every day. How do we as parents do this? A study by psychologist John Coffey gives us some insight into how teens feel loved. The research team surveyed over 150 teens, asking them one single question every evening: “How much do you feel loved by your parent today?”
The answer was clear: teenagers felt more loved on days when their parents showed more warmth. This was true even on days with more conflict. So, to show your teen that they’re loved, offer warmth daily without making it conditional on your teen’s behavior. Warmth includes offering a hug or a compliment and showing empathy for their situation. This warmth strengthens your relationship with your teen, helping to open the lines of communication.
Forming a circle of security with your teenager also aids the communication between you. This circle helps to identify your teen’s needs, allows you to be there for them through difficult emotions, and gives you the tools to repair a rupture within your relationship. It also helps teens build emotional resilience and independence, which supports their growth into well-adjusted adults that have healthy relationships with others. This positive attachment between child and parent results in healthier and happier teenagers.
Another study found that attentive listening helps teens to open up about their feelings. Practicing listening techniques—such as listening quietly, maintaining eye contact, and nodding—has a powerful effect on the parent-teen relationship. The teenagers noted that they felt more authentic and connected with the parent practicing these active listening skills, and they felt valued and appreciated for their honesty. This also had a powerful effect on the teens’ willingness to open up.
So, now we know we can make our teens feel loved by listening attentively and showing warmth, but how do we talk so that they will listen?
Why kids don’t listen: A lesson in tone of voice
A study conducted at Cardiff University in Wales gives us some insight into why kids don’t listen. It found that teens are less likely to obey parents who have a controlling tone of voice. The researchers established that speaking to a teenager in a controlling voice resulted in a range of negative emotions and weakened the closeness that the teen felt.
Changing the tone of your voice when speaking to your teenager is an effective way of getting them to listen to you. To derive the most benefit out of a conversation with your teen, you need to use a supportive tone of voice. Teenagers are more likely to respond positively to requests made in an encouraging way that emphasizes their need for personal choice and self-expression.
If you have trouble communicating with your teens and are wondering how to get them to talk to you, here’s a book that could help.
How to talk so teens will listen and listen so teens will talk
How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is an addition to their series of books in the How to Talk series. It includes lots of practical examples and real-life scenarios to learn from. These stories make it easier to understand how to apply the tools discussed in everyday encounters with our teens.
The book starts with a discussion on dealing with your teenager’s feelings. Instead of dismissing them and giving advice, we should identify and acknowledge their feelings. Their feelings should be accepted as we redirect their behavior when it is out of line. Accepting your teen’s feelings doesn’t mean that their behavior is condoned. These are two separate issues.
Feelings, whatever they may be, are accepted. I often tell my own kids that they’re allowed to be angry or frustrated, but their behavior needs to be in line. For example, my oldest gets frustrated and angry with his sister, and this is ok. He’s allowed to feel that way. He’s not, however, allowed to scream at her rudely or push her. He still has to act in an acceptable manner even though he has these strong feelings.
The authors discuss skills for engaging a teenager’s cooperation. I think so many of us can relate to the common mistakes we make when trying to get our teens to listen and cooperate. Do you also resort to accusations, name-calling, or threats? Saying things like, “If you don’t do this, then…” How about lecturing, warning, trying to order them to obey, using sarcasm, or even comparing them to others? Honestly, has any of these ever worked? No.
I found the ideas in the book to be very helpful. The authors suggest describing the problem instead of just giving orders; by doing this, we invite our teens to become part of the solution. Instead of lashing out at them when we’re angry, we should describe how we feel. This makes it easier for our teens to hear us and respond in a more helpful manner instead of withdrawing and counter-attacking.
Another helpful communication tool is giving information instead of blaming. Typically, as soon as teenagers are accused, they become defensive. I think this is true for most people. When they receive information in a respectful manner, teens and adults alike are more likely to assume responsibility for what needs to be done.
Just think about it: how do we as adults respond to threats and orders? Most of us will react with defiance or sullen compliance. It’s the same for our teens. Instead, offer a choice that takes into account both your and your child’s needs. Keep things simple and concise, use a word or short reminder to focus their attention, and engage their cooperation. This is much more likely to work than a long lecture.
Also, state your values and expectations rather than point out something that’s wrong. Teens tend to take offense at critical comments and tune out, which blocks communication. They are more likely to listen and live up to the expectations set by their parents when these are communicated clearly and respectfully.
Teenagers are especially sensitive to the disapproval of their parents. The moment we criticize or reprimand in anger, they shut down and shut us out. Therefore, we need to be sensitive to how we speak to our teens, focusing not only on what we say but also on the tone we use when we say it.
One way to get our words across is to write them down. Our written word can often accomplish what our spoken word cannot. The book looks at some light-hearted ways to do this and get the cooperation you need from your teen.
Alternatives to punishment
The book includes an entire chapter on punishment or rather alternatives to punishment. This section takes the reader through different steps as alternatives to punishment. These are:
- Stating your feelings
- Stating your expectations
- Showing how to make amends
- Offering a choice
- Taking action
Just like I did, you might be thinking this seems weird, but consider it for a second. When you make a mistake at work, does your boss take away the keys to your car as punishment for your mistake? No, that sounds ridiculous. Yes, you have to deal with the consequences, but you don’t get punished with some randomly devised measure.
Similarly, the approach discussed in the book requires us to change the way we think about punishment. The idea might still seem a bit crazy to you, but if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you need help with your teen, so why not try a new approach?
Talking with teens
When faced with a problem in your parent-teen relationship, you don’t need to go at it by yourself. There are 2 of you in this relationship, and you can work it out together. The book lists 5 steps you can follow to do this.
- Give your teen the opportunity to state his/her point of view.
- State your point of view.
- Invite your teenager to brainstorm ideas with you.
- Write down all the ideas, both the silly and sensible ones, without evaluating them.
- Review your list. Decide which of the ideas you can both agree to and how to put them into action.
Again, these steps are followed by many examples and stories to show how to make them work in real life.
What kids think
The authors devote a chapter to what kids think, presenting some interesting questions and ideas the teens shared. They also talk about feelings, friends, and family, and how to help your child navigate through the different situations they find themselves in. This also includes topics such as sex and drugs.
Conversations about sex can be difficult for both the parent and the teenager. To make it easier on each party, look for opportunities to have small talks instead of one big talk. This could be while reading something or watching a tv show where the topic comes up. You can adopt the same approach to speak about drugs.
Take advantage of the small opportunities that arise to discuss difficult issues. In this way, no one has to have the dreaded big talk and feel all awkward about it; you can instill your family values through small talks.
Parenting is difficult, especially when it comes to parenting teens. Use some of these strategies, and you’ll soon see the fruit of your labor.
More reading suggestions
- How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King empowers parents to forge rewarding and meaningful relationships with their younger kids (ages 2-7).
- How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is the 1st of the series. It offers effective techniques for breaking a pattern of arguments, resolving conflicts peacefully, and strengthening parent-child relationships.
- How To Talk So Kids Can Learn, also by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, teaches parents and educators about strategies that can motivate kids to learn and succeed in school.
How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk
- Accept and acknowledge your teen's feelings.
- Redirect their behavior when out of line.
- Teens will most likely listen when you set expectations clearly and respectfully.
You need this if...
- You're raising a teenager and want to create better rapport.
- You want your teen to communicate and open up more.
- You're looking for ways to better approach your teen during arguments.