“Adolescence is like gravity,  It is much easier to work with it than against it.”

If you’re raising a teen, you know one of the hardest parts is trying to engage them in conversation. And it’s even harder when you know you have to talk to them about a tough subject. The last thing a teen wants to do is talk to you about sex, drugs, alcohol, or conflict.

So how can you set the stage so they open up and maintain a strong connection when things get uncomfortable?

Set the stage.

The first step is to check in with your teen before you attempt any dialogue about the issue at hand.

If they’re having a tough week, keep in mind that they’re bringing that to the table on top of their normal mood or angst. You’ll have more success if you put off the conversation until after you’ve helped them with their emotional needs.  You may even need to give them space to balance themselves out first. (Unsure how to do this? Click here to read our post on how to let kids feel their feelings). Like anyone else, a teen who’s preoccupied with their own inner world won’t have the patience to talk with you. An overwhelmed teen will try to get away from this new discomfort you’re putting on them by any means they can.  This means, you’re setting yourself up for push back or argument.  Or, your message will fall on deaf ears if they just don’t have the capacity to handle what you’re trying to share.

It is beneficial for both you AND your child to keep conversations open ended. Don’t feel pressure to share everything all at once. Have an ongoing dialogue that can end when it needs to and pick up again when you both have the energy or insight to do so. Teens often need to think things over. Give them space to make sense of things themselves and don’t pressure them to share in that moment. This makes them more likely to come to you, open up, and share when they feel ready.

Be transparent.

“Hey, I have a sort of awkward conversation I want to have with you about x. There’s nothing wrong, and you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s a parenting thing that I want to discuss. When would be the best time for us to start this conversation? Is there anything I can do to make it enjoyable or at least comfortable?”

If you want to be a bit more sly, asking them a question about the topic and then say, “Don’t worry about responding right now. But in the next couple of days I’d love to hear your thoughts”. And then don’t push or pressure them. Give them a couple days and let them come to you.

Don’t lecture.

Teens never respond to lecturing. Being a teen is one of the most critical times for identity exploration and seeking independence. That means teens value independence in their thoughts and their decision making.  Lecturing invites rebellion no matter how important or helpful what you have to say is. Instead, making the topic about them will help them relate and open up as they will feel less pressure. Asking what their opinion is on a topic is a much more effective way of sharing critical information. Asking how they think a situation or topic affects them invites them to think about it. This is more productive than expecting them to memorize your rules and expectations. Get them thinking about:

  • the reasons they might drink
  • what they think about drinking
  • those around them that do drink
  • how drinking could affect them

Now, they’re more likely to make an informed and wise decision than if you simply tell them not to drink.  teens tend to believe they will be immune or invisible to negative outcomes. Teens tend to believe they’re immune to negative outcomes. This comes from an undeveloped sense of personal consequence mixed with the need to experiment and assert themselves.

Be the student.

Let your teen teach you about a topic. This is a clever way to make them feel empowered and knowledgeable. It also still enables you to show your care and concern.

You can use pop culture references to discuss something. Try, “Hey, I saw Ariana Grande’s latest music video. Is that song all about forgiving your ex? Do you think that’s a healthy message?” This is a great way to show you’re interested in their lives that gives you openings to sneak in helpful guidance. “I’m so glad artists are discussing being treated well in relationships. What do you think the best advice is about healthy relationships?”

Suddenly, your once tight lipped teen is chatting away. The key is to be curious about your teen and their life and what they have to share with you. There is no need to try to be cool or hip. That is a sure fire way to get your teen to roll their eyes and walk away. You don’t need to know everything. They actually know more than you realize. All they want and need is to know you’re interested in them and that you will be there when they need you. Creating this atmosphere sets you up for a lifetime of ongoing conversation – no matter how sticky the topic.

Get moving.

Finally, some conversations simply can’t wait. The best way to approach a sticky subject is to ensure you are in a place where the teen can have a mental escape if needed. Sitting down to talk is hard. Many parents use the “let’s go for a drive” trick which can be helpful because you don’t have to look at each other when it gets awkward. But the flip side is that the teen also cannot escape and the topic may be so overwhelming they shut down and avoid car trips. You never want your child to feel trapped. Instead, doing something active while you talk helps in two important ways:

  1. the actual physical activity decreases anxiety and stress hormones. This decreases the chances of emotional overwhelm or shut down.
  2. breaks in the conversation to reduce tension are built in. If you’re shooting hoops or dancing around, you can offset the heaviness of the topic with bursts of joy and physical fun.

If you have a competitive teen, it could be fun to set a challenge for each other. For example, “who can come up with the three best excuses to say “I’m not ready for sex” in the time it takes us to run to the lamp post? This lets them know you’re always on their team. They may not remember the point of your conversation, but they will always remember you were there for them.

Get creative.

Running out of options? Have a teen that isn’t responding? It’s okay to get creative. Not every conversation requires a verbal discussion. Some families use special email accounts or texting back and forth. One friend of mine even carries a journal that she writes in then shares with her mom who writes back. They have been sharing that journal for 35 years now. Tackle challenging topics by putting on skits for each other or engaging in role play. (Just remember to be gentle when playing the character of your teen.)

What’s most important is that you are gathering information about your teen’s life and world. Educating them is actually a by-product of simply being open and curious.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. What strategies worked for you? Share your expertise in our community.