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Communicating With Teens: All It Takes Is Three Magic Words

When talking to your teen, asking her what she plans to do rather than telling her what you think she should do will help open up a whole new world of communication and respect.
Communicating with Teens
Updated: December 1, 2022

Communicating with teens can be tough, but these three magic words --what's your plan -- may fix your relationship for good. Teenagers are old enough to know what they have to do and they may be together enough to have some idea of how to tackle it. And if they don't, well, asking them about their plan is a good reminder to formulate one! "What's your plan?" conveys respect, passes responsibility to your child, and helps build good planning skills -- those are three pretty powerful words!

Mom Communicating with Teenage Daughter

Parents Speak Out: "What Is the Hardest Part of Communicating with Teens?"

"The main argument is usually related to his disorganization and the constant reminding him of his responsibilities. I learned to let some of that go - and let him do what he needed to do and learn from his mistakes." – A, mom of two boys.

"They didn't always want to do what I wanted them to do, especially WHEN I wanted them to do it. We don't argue that much, but it's usually when I think they are making a mistake about something and try to tell them... they insist they are correct and don't always listen that well." K, mom of 3 teenage boys

"We argue a couple of times a week maybe, usually about keeping the house clean, letting us check her homework, or generally doing something we think she should be doing that she does not want to." ­–J, dad of a 13-year-old daughter

When I would ask my older son to do something he would say "okay," and we wouldn't argue but he would never actually do it. When I ask my younger son, he immediately complains or says 'no,' and we get into it." –K, mom of 2 teenage boys

Keep the Conversation Open

Communicating with an Unhappy Teenager

"If you put your child on the defensive, they are either going to withhold the truth or lie because they don't want to disappoint their parents, and they want to do what they want to do," explains Jim Fay, co-founder of The Love and Logic Institute, Inc. Fay's primary message to parents is to maintain mutual respect in order to keep lines of communication open. "Keep them in thinking mode instead of fighting or defensive mode."

Fay offers the following six tips for keeping your cool and keeping the conversation going:

  1. Empathy first. Consequences next. Looking at the situation from your child's perspective will help you guide them to make better choices in the future. The next time your child comes home with an unacceptable grade, for example, try a version of this script that Fay recommends: "Wow. I can't think of one thing I can do that would make you feel worse right now. Give me a hug. Is there anything I can do to help? Is there any plan you can think of that would turn this around?"
  2. Give yourself a time out. You don't have to respond right away when you're angry or upset. Instead, give yourself time to cool down. In the heat of the moment, it's okay to say: "You didn't set the table even though you knew it was your responsibility. We'll deal with this after I've had time to calm down."
  3. Don't yell. React with empathy first before you present the consequence. One example Fay gives is an extreme one: if your child gets into an accident while driving. "When you learn about the accident, you experience a wide range of emotions: worry for the child's safety, anger over his irresponsibility, relief that he's OK, and stress over the cost of repairs." The natural response is to get angry, but anger only expresses your feelings and lets them out like a teapot blowing off steam. It doesn't actually communicate anything. Take a step back and look at it from your traumatized child's point of view. Starting with something like, "Wow, how scary that must have been; I'm glad you're okay," sets up a productive conversation that doesn't get your child's defenses up.
  4. Don't nag. "Nagging is born out of wanting your child to not make mistakes," Fay explains. But childhood and "teenagerhood" are all about learning through trial and error and making mistakes. Keeping a messy room, not studying for a test, and forgetting to do chores are all non-life-threatening mistakes that are okay for kids to make and then face the consequences. Nagging stresses you both out and doesn't teach them the value of taking their responsibilities any more seriously. He may figure he'll never need to remember for himself: no sense in both of you worrying about it if you're there to remind him! One reminder is enough. "Remind your teen once and hope and pray that he or she will blow it while the price tag is still affordable," Fay advises. If you constantly nag your children about the little things, they'll tune you out when you talk about the big things.
  1. Don't be a problem solver. Your job as a parent is to teach your child to make good choices and think independently. You don't need to have all the answers and you don'teven need good answers. You just need to start a conversation on solid ground. "Let me think about it and then we'll see what we can come up with together," is a reasonable response to a teen's request for help. The main thing is to get them thinking and talking.
  2. Be prepared. Keep a phrase handy that you can use in reaction to any situation where you would usually find yourself getting angry. "If your child back talks, argues, etc., it usually hits you and you get speechless," Fay explains. "But if a parent has a catch phrase ready and can use it, then turn and walk away, you can be prepared to handle anything." Some suggestions: "Nooo, problem. I'll take care of it"; "Iwouldn't do that but let's see what happens when you do..."; or a Princess Bride favorite: "As you wish."

The next time you're about to get into a disagreement with your teen, take a moment to decide how you'll react before you respond. A lot of times, the answer, Fay suggests, is overwhelmingly simple: "Figure out how you'd like to be treated and do it the same way."

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