Develop Open Communication with your Teen

The transition of an oldest child from tween to teen can be a tumultuous emotional time for parents. Here’s how to help your relationship evolve.

At some point certain, time and hormones conspire to change your huggable, little school age child into an alarmingly mature-looking, freedom-seeking teen. There are a few signs that let you know the transition has occurred:

Photo by S. Braswell,

Photo by S. Braswell,

  • you feel compelled to throw a blanket around your daughter every time she puts on a bathing suit;
  • you’ve begun taking every opportunity to drop scary facts on your son about his brain on drugs and how easy it is to contract venereal disease;
  • you realize that while they are telling you over your cell phone where they are and who they are with, it is possible that, for the first time in their lives, you really may have no idea where your children are and who they are with.

This is the time to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with your teen going forward. It can help to remember that…

…while dropping scary facts on your child might momentarily quell your anxiety, it will not promote a healthy, trusting relationship.

Giving Teenagers Freedom

While you might want to react by saying “no “every time she asks if she can hang out with her friends (including a certain boy with whom you know she is smitten) your instincts say that if you do this your daughter will stop sharing information with you about the boys, or worse, lie about who she’s with. So what is a parent of a new teen to do?

Your child has changed and so must you. While it is a good thing for kids this age to have some new freedoms, so they can grow, learn and gain confidence, you need to monitor the process. A solution is to start a dialogue.

Tell her that you will give her the freedom to go out because you see that she is acting responsibly and has a good head on her shoulders. Tell her about situations she might encounter that are concerning to you, and ask her how she might respond if those happened.

For example…

…she’s at a friend’s house with a group of boys and girls and the parents decide to go out.

Young, inexperienced teens may not understand why this scenario would be concerning to you. Talk about some of the things that could happen in this scenario.

Ask her if those situations would make her uncomfortable, and what she would do if they happened. Tell her some things that she could do in those situations that would be productive.

Maybe most importantly, tell her that she should call you if she ever feels uncomfortable and promise you will not give her the third degree or punish her. (Then you have to stick to that promise – you don’t have to punish but you can reign in some privileges if you think she isn’t handling them well.)

The idea is to just talk. This can be an exciting time as you watch your child become more independent and enjoy your own new-found freedoms that occur as a result.

Children this age are full of self-discovery and some love to talk about themselves. Usually they choose to talk to their friends because they are separating from their parents. But if you make it safe for them, many kids will be happy to spill, especially if they feel you are more interested in talking and listening and less interested in punishing.

Freedom Comes with Responsibility

However, your should take new freedoms off the table unless the child shows the maturity to handle them. The child must show respect to the parents and other family members. He must keep up with his schoolwork. And he must participate as much as is reasonable in family life and with the tasks that are expected of him at home.

Are You Sure You Want Your Teenager to Confide in You?

Most parents will say they want their kids to open up to them, but sometimes they have mixed feelings that get in the way of that. While on the one hand, they want their kids to talk to them, on the other hand they may want to stay inside the false bliss of not really knowing what goes on.

This ambivalence is one of the things that gets in the way of having an open relationship with teens. Examine your conscience and know what you want, so you can work towards it.

Helping your Teen Talk to You

It may help to think about when you were a teen, whether or not you were able to talk with your parents about important things. Did you like how it was? What do you wish they provided, that they didn’t? What would have made your life better?

Parent-Child Communication During Elementary School vs. Middle School

During the elementary years you explain all manner of things to your children. The children usually accept what you say as gospel. When a child becomes a teen, this kind of talk becomes counterproductive. Most parents understand that lecturing is not helpful. Yet many parents find themselves falling into the lecture trap.

One way to avoid this it to focus on spending a whole let more time listening rather than talking. Asking questions can be tricky because if the child feels like he is being cross-examined, he will clam up. It takes a bit of trial and error to find a way to ask questions that is non-threatening.

Communication Tip:

Start by asking relatively benign questions “What do you like most about being your age? What is the most difficult thing about being your age?”

If you ask for their opinions you have to be willing to validate them. Don’t put them down or point out how naïve they are or they will shut down. Keep in mind that you are asking questions for the purpose of understanding their point of view.

Communication Tip:

If you begin to feel anxious because their point of view is not what you want it to be, do not react emotionally or you will find yourself lecturing.

Instead, when they give their opinion, find something to praise them for, whether it’s a correct instinct they have, or a mature insight into something. Gently correct any misinformation they might have, without making them feel stupid.

Communication Tip:

If you want them to keep sharing their opinions with you, use phrases like,

“Have you considered that…..” and “Do you think that’s true in every case?” to introduce your concerns, not, “You are wrong about that.”

It takes practice to do this. Learn how to do deep breathing because you will need this to calm your insides when they talk and say things that are not quite what you want to hear.

If you can contain your emotions and quiet your insides you can address it properly. Otherwise you will find yourself lecturing.

How to Talk Without Lecturing

If your child’s stating her opinion leads to a lecture, she will shut down. Watch her body language to see how the conversation is going. If she shuts down suddenly during a conversation, ask her why. Ask her if you were lecturing just then. Tell her you’d really like feedback from her about what you say that bothers her so that you can learn to communicate better.

You will be leading by example, showing the effort involved in establishing good communication. You often ask her to be respectful when communicating with you – when she sees you trying to improve your communication style too, she will see that you are practicing what you preach.

Another way to tell when you are lecturing is to notice when you become anxious and fearful and when you try to “make” a child do or not do something. If you suddenly feel this way in the conversation you are probably lecturing.

Example: “You can get diseases from oral sex, you know.”

How do children define lecturing? It’s when you tell them things that they already know, without taking into account what their situation is. This makes them feel like you think they are stupid.

Lecturing is…

…when you use scare tactics rather than engaging in a two-way problem solving conversation, in which you come to understand the specific difficulties or pressures they face, and the thoughts they have about it.

If you ask for feedback about how the conversation is affecting them, you have to be open to receiving it. If she says you are lecturing don’t argue. Try to understand what lecturing means to her. If she says you are putting her down, understand why she feels that way.

Then reassure her that you think the world of her. You will be surprised at how children interpret and misinterpret things and you will never know unless you ask for and give credence to feedback about how the conversation is affecting them.

Communication Tip: Don’t React Emotionally

Children at this age are experiencing a bundle of strong emotions. Some of them are being felt for the first time. Some they do not even have names for. They are often swamped by their emotions and they are trying to manage them all. It can feel overwhelming and scary to them.

The child will avoid you and not talk to you if you react emotionally to the things she tells you because she is having a hard enough time handling her own emotions, she can’t manage yours on top of it all.

It takes practice, but developing a stone face in response to whatever shocking thing comes out of her mouth will help.

Don’t worry about under-reacting. You can always bring up the conversation later to respond to the issue and convey how important it is. But in the moment, try to simply remain calm and open and listening.

Ask questions to make sure you understand what the child is telling you. Ask her opinion about what she is telling you, rather than giving her yours. If you are not sure how to respond, you can give yourself time and then revisit. Tell her you need to think more about this and will talk more after dinner.

Or you can explain that you have mixed feelings and tell her why. For example, “I know that you are a very responsible girl but I also don’t want to see you get into a situation you can’t handle. I’m not sure what is the right thing to do here. Maybe we both need to think about it and talk about it more.”

The Difference Between Open Communication and Being Your Child’s Friend

Open communication does not mean that you are becoming your child’s friend. You want your child to know that you will be fair and reasonable, and take his input into account. But ultimately you are the parent. Once you have heard the child’s views and discussed them you need to clearly state your own. Indicate points of agreement and areas where you differ.

There is a way to do this that doesn’t damage the communication process.

Communication Tip:

Do not use pejorative words when stating your opinion. Don’t say, “You are acting like a slut.” Do say, “That behavior is risky and can result in a lot of pain and suffering, even though it might feel right at the time.”

Do not punish the child for being honest with you, or tie an open conversation to a removal of privileges. If you feel your child is getting in over his head express your love and concern for him. Ask if he shares your opinion that he may be getting in over his head, and what he thinks he should do about it.

Use the information to inform your decisions over the next few weeks when he asks if he can do this or that. If you think he needs a bit of reigning in, just do it, you do not have to present it as a punishment. Tell him that you all need to slow down a bit.

If your child is engaging in dangerous behavior, all bets are off. Freedom and privacy are privileges to be earned. A child who is out of control needs the parents to step in and take control.

Making Your Teenager Responsible

It helps to step back and see your child as an individual in his own right, and try to see yourself as his trusted guide – and act like one. You can’t make him listen to you, all you can do is set limits and discuss, discuss, discuss.

The consequences of his choices will accrue to him, and he will have to live with them.

Communication Tip: It is very powerful when you step back and actually say this to a child.

“You know I love you and don’t want to see you get hurt. But I can’t make you do or not do anything. It is your life and you are the one who will have to live with the consequences of your actions.”

This will take the wind of a rebellious child’s sails, the one who wants to shout at you, “You can’t tell me what to do, it’s my life.” Taking this position will prevent this reaction and puts responsibility squarely on the child.

Parent as Mentor

As a child transitions from tween to teen, the relationship between that child and all other family members will evolve too. Parents need to be ahead of this curve, by deciding what kind of relationship they would like to have. They can promote an atmosphere of easy, open communication that will enable their teens to confide in them about important matters.

Parents can develop a mutually trusting relationship if they are willing to do the hard work of managing their own emotions and impulses, and listen more than they speak. In doing so, they will serve as good role models as well as effective guides.

This way of parenting may not be right for every parent or every child. But if you were unable to confide in your own parents and you wish it could have been different for you, you can definitely change that legacy when it comes to your own kids. It will take practice, it’s a new way of being if you come from a more authoritarian model, but it can be done.

Think of it as mentoring. The mentor is an authority but is not authoritarian. The mentor is open and does not react emotionally. The mentor has the best interest of the mentee at heart but does not make all the decisions or try to control the charge.

© 2011 Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web for any reason, or in print for business use without permission from the author. This article was originally published on the web on August 1, 2011. Please contact the author with your reprint request.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for personal medical or mental health advice. If you are experiencing troubling symptoms please seek the advice of a medical or mental health professional in person.


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