Tips for Talking to Your Teen
Little kids want nothing more than to talk to mommy and daddy – sometimes a bit too much! But teens? We all know that changes in the teen years. You still see your baby even as they start driving, graduate, move out, and start their own life. Finding a balance between the baby you see and the adult they think they are (even as a teen) can be tough. It seems like we all need some tips for talking to teens.
Just as they are moving away (emotionally) and becoming more independent, we, as parents, realize they won’t be in our home much longer and start wanting to talk to them more. And, frankly, they can get more interesting to talk to as their interest moves from Teletubbies and children’s things to more grown-up topics. Keeping them talking is a challenge!
Silence. It’s golden in the movie theater and it’s golden when you try to speak to teens. As adults, sometimes we need a few moments to gather our thoughts and figure out what to say. We need even more time if it’s about our emotions and may never be able to get out a decent explanation of our deepest emotions. As teens, they have little to no experience doing this so naturally, it takes longer. Give them the time to figure out what they want to say and how to say it.
There is a reason teens like to talk in cars. No one is staring at them, making them feel uncomfortable. There are things outside to talk about. Driving requires concentration, so pauses in the conversation are natural. They are nervous and self-conscious, even if they don’t want to admit it. In cars, they aren’t the subject of undivided attention.
It’s true when we’re dating, it’s true with our friends, it’s true when we’re adults, and it’s true when we’re kids. It’s more fun to be around people who make us happy and make us laugh. That doesn’t mean be your kids’ pal instead of their parent but you can parent and still joke around with your kids. Years later, my boys still laugh at “the best fart joke ever” as told by the Wise Dad. They accept my joking around about the zombie apocalypse, even the one who has zero interest in The Walking Dead or anything zombie. Of course, that’s because Mom liking zombies made it supremely uncool for him, no matter what other teens might think.
Know that a lot of what they say that appalls you is teenage joking around and learning to find their place. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to correct them, but don’t think it means your little buddy or princess has suddenly morphed into a douchebag or mean queen. (They may have, but that’s a different matter.) If you are serious and judgy all the time, it will be a lot harder to get them to open up.
Really, do you like to talk to people who are always telling you what you did wrong and how to do it better next time? Did you when you were a teen? Just give them a chance to talk it out (vent) and see where it goes. They may come up with a solution on their own or they may ask you for thoughts or suggestions. Just kidding with that last one, but they may leave an opening for you to give some suggestions.
When they are finished, you can ask what they want to do, what they want you to do, or just give them information or suggestions. But if they admit to a mistake or problem and you use it as an opportunity to tell them how they screwed up (they already know!), you may not get another chance.
Go with the Flow
When our eldest was in middle school, I was grateful for Skype. It’s the only reason we knew he hadn’t suddenly gone mute. I’ve heard the same thing from many other parents. It can be frustrating to see them spending huge amounts of time online chatting with their friends, but it isn’t that different from when we used to hang out IRL or talk on the phone. That doesn’t keep it from feeling weird sometimes.
The computers for our boys are set up where we can see and hear them, so we know what they are doing. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten upset with our eldest for playing with his friends and not doing his homework only to find out that he was, in fact, doing homework with them. After more than a year, I accept that it works for him and his buddies. I try to stop, look, listen, and ask what he’s doing when I think he is screwing around instead of doing his homework instead of always jumping to conclusions.
Other kids might find it too hard to do their homework with their friends online. Learning to just let them do their own thing is a challenge but it’s only a few years until we won’t be there so it’s time to step back and ask guiding questions instead of telling them what to do.
Trust Them – And Let It Show
Of course, they have to earn trust but you can start with small things. If they are good at feeding their pet or brushing their teeth, let them know that and work toward bigger things.
Our tween has a buddy, Joe*, who is, frankly, a jerk to him in their online conversations. I don’t think Joe is a bad person but neither the Wise Dad nor I like the way he talks to our little boy. It got out of hand in late summer and we forbade them from talking for a week. (It was initially a permanent ban but we walked it back once the heat of the moment cooled.) Things have improved but…the way Joe talks is still not OK with us. When we talked to our son about he said Joe is venting his stress and frustration. Our boy doesn’t take it personally. We may never really like Joe, but our son gets something from the friendship.
*not his real name
He knows that we don’t understand it and aren’t happy with Joe but that he is allowed to play with him because we are trusting him (our son) that it is a valuable friendship he gets something positive from. We used those words: we trust you and that is why we are letting you hang out. That is a powerful message for a youngster.
If you think allowing this is the wrong thing to do, consider your own childhood friendships. You almost certainly had friends your parents didn’t like. Some may have been bad influences but there is a good chance that at least one your parents didn’t like or thought was a bad influence really wasn’t. In my case, my parents were very right in questioning how bad an influence she could’ve been but she was the only friend I had from before we moved to a new town. Since my parents did a good job raising me, I had no interest in any shenanigans she might have gotten into. They never saw the value but it was always clear to me.
No matter what your age, these phrases can improve communication and understanding, and they are particularly powerful messages for teens to hear.
I hear your words.
We’re all busy. When the kids ask me something and I understand what they want, but don’t have time to think through an answer or get into a deeper conversation, I simply say, “I hear your words.” It isn’t a yes, no, or even maybe. They know I have heard but I’m not giving them an answer at that point. They need to come back later, when I’m not busy, for a definite answer but I have heard and will think about it.
Sometimes, it can mean that I hear but don’t really understand. That usually happens with video games and YouTube. The Wise Dad understands more of those conversations than I do but at least they know I am listening and trying to understand. Neither the games nor the videos and YouTube channels are important to me but they are important to the kids, so I listen.
They are simple words, but they matter. When I screw up, and we all screw up sometimes, I admit it. When I over-react, it takes a little while to realize it and calm down but when I do, I go to the kids and own it. If I gave them a too-harsh punishment, I reduce it. If I yelled, I apologize. (Physical punishments are not used on our boys.) And then I explain what happened.
In virtually every instance, there was an ongoing behavior irritating me excessively combined with an external stressor. The most recent example was when our teen was being a teen and making me nuts. He wasn’t putting telling me when he would be at school late, needed to be at activities outside of school, or generally had anything scheduled. Naturally, he expected me to magically be available whenever he needed a ride. Irritating, but entirely age-appropriate.
One afternoon, he made several pronouncements about my needing to take him places according to his schedule, based in part around playing video games with his friends, entirely ignoring the fact that I had work to do and I got mad. Two hours later, I picked him up and we had a talk. Now he understands why he needs to use the calendar app (Cozi) and also that I was really upset over being forced to cancel a trip with the Wise Dad that we had planned months earlier. If I had gotten my vacation, I would’ve been a much happier mom.
It can be hard to tell kids those sorts of things but they don’t need (or want) details. Just saying “I was mad about something else” is often enough for a kid. It’s not like they really care about the details.
You know what your kid likes. It might be sports. It might be board games. It might be video games. It might even be music. Family outings like bike rides, hikes, going out to a movie or musical performance are great ways to bond and get even a surly, sulky, silent teen to open up.
It may seem silly to adults but games really do matter to kids. They don’t have jobs. They don’t have a lot of choice in a lot of areas of their lives but their extracurricular activities and games are one place they can choose for themselves. Whether it’s soccer, Dungeons & Dragons, fashion design, or something you’ve never heard of, they are making a fledgling step in decision making. Even if they grump about it, knowing that you are taking time out to play/learn something that matters to them will probably make them feel important. Plus, it will help you follow their conversations when they start rattling off information on their passion.
Have you seen/heard this?
It’s simple: share your music, TV shows, and movies with them. Then watch the things they want to share with you, within your comfort zone. Our tween likes the music in the video game “Fallout 4” so I dove into our music collection and pulled every swing CD the Wise Dad and I have. Now we can enjoy those together. He has received a hard no on seeing Deadpool but we’ve been watching The Walking Dead together. We take turns choosing movies for Family Movie Night and the Wise Dad, in particular, has been having fun sharing some of his favorite movies with the boys.
From the other side, the kids like to bring us memes and YouTube videos to watch. Even when they don’t really interest me much, I watch so they keep doing it. Sometimes, though, they bring us really funny stuff.
The Bottom Line
Think about how you and your spouse want people to talk to you, then talk to your teen the same way (more or less). Kids are people too. They don’t like being yelled at for no apparent reason. They don’t like being talked down to or insulted. They don’t want to be ignored or told things they like are stupid. While they certainly aren’t adults yet (their brains really can’t connect the dots well enough to understand things that are hugely obvious to adults), they are closer every day. As frustrating as they can be, remember that your parents probably felt the same thing when you were a teen.