How to navigate a difficult chat with your adolescent

When teens feel they can talk to non-judgmental parents about important topics they open up more. [iStockphoto]

Important conversations with teenagers are among the biggest challenges of parenting. They can feel like walking a tightrope. Lean too much - or too little - into commands and restrictions and you're likely to tip over.

In preparation for writing this article, I asked my daughter for her advice to parents of teens. Her response was that "teens can get frustrated if you don't listen properly, or say one thing but do another. Think about what you say long before you say it to a teen." Her intuition was surprisingly aligned with research findings (and I suspect it was a message from her to me as well).

Conversations with teens are difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, adolescence is a time when young people develop their own identities. To try out different parts of those identities they make more decisions without their parents, some of which can be quite risky.

But teens are still dependent on parents and seek their love and approval - even if they don't want to admit it. Conversations that meet these complex needs often require flexibility, responsiveness and patience. Researchers are still learning about how parents can best support their teenagers' needs, but studies conducted so far point to some key things to keep in mind.

Talk to your teenager, often and with interest. Engage them on topics that matter to them. When teens feel they can talk to non-judgmental parents about important topics they open up more. Along with the quality of conversation, the frequency also matters. Initiating more frequent conversations will help teens share more. To prepare for the conversation, it helps to set your mind towards taking an interest in, valuing, and trusting your teenager even before starting a difficult conversation.

Listen with love

My own research shows that high-quality listening on your part can improve wellbeing in teenagers and lead them to be willing to share more in the future. Listening well involves attending carefully to what your teenager says, attempting to understand issues from their perspective and conveying that you value and love them - even if you may not necessarily value what they've done or what they say.

Listen with an open mind

Listening does not require parents to agree to requests without good reason. At the start of the conversation, you can explain the difference between wanting to understand and being willing to accommodate your teen.

Explain your reasoning

Listening is not always enough, and parents are called to respond to, or direct, their child's actions. The way you do this can help teenagers understand the importance of a request beyond their parent's whim.

For example, a parent can give a command: "You have to put down your phone now!" Or, they could give a request with explanation: "It's important to put the phone down now that we're having family time so we can connect." Explaining decisions and making requests may not protect you from teenage protests, but doing so conveys your values and allows your teenager to make a choice about their behaviour. This ultimately helps teenagers to internalise or buy into parental rules and norms.

Think about tone of voice

Not just what parents say, but how they say it, matters. My research shows that warm, inviting and soft tones of voice are better received by adolescents, who report that a supportive tone of voice helps them to get on board with parental messages, feel positive emotions and experience a sense of connection with parents. In contrast, pressuring tones of voice can alienate young people and undermine efforts to communicate effectively for positive change.

Think about your own wellbeing

Listening well, and using ideal tones of voice and words to convey messages to teens, may be difficult when parents are exhausted, under pressure, or have been dealing with difficult behaviour from their children. Parents and children both benefit when these conversations take place after a good rest, or at least a deep breath. It may help to track your own mood, and step away from a conversation when you are not in the right headspace.

It's also important to watch out for your own feelings of threat and fear during conversations, because these can get in the way of being responsive, loving, and still firm - as needed - when things get tough.

Understand that a conversation can't solve everything

Adolescents are on their own journeys to growing, and often these journeys are influenced by some, often complex, personality factors, peer influence, and mental health difficulties. Parents certainly have the power to encourage teenagers to talk about issues affecting them and promote their well-being, but parents also deserve to have compassion for themselves as well as for their teens. They don't have infinite power; doing their very best might just have to be enough.

The writer is a professor, School of Psychology, University of Reading. This article was first published on theconversation.com

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