Expert Advice for Navigating Tough Conversations with your Teen

Expert Advice for Navigating Tough Conversations with your Teen

- in Ages & Stages, Featured, Parenting, Teens

We’ve all been there — sitting in the hot seat — because our parents wanted to have “the talk.” Now it’s our turn to sit down with our own children, and even though we may remember what it felt like to be in their shoes, it doesn’t make it much easier.

The awkward conversations are not always about sex and drugs; there are other less obvious topics that may be just as uncomfortable to discuss. For example, an impending dialogue could involve important topics such as moving, divorce, sickness or the death of a loved one. Most parents would agree that they want their children to feel safe and able to talk about anything, setting the stage for them to offer good advice. Here are ways to help them — and you — get through a tough talk.

Be Age Appropriate
Nicholette Leanza, a psychotherapist at PsychBC, with locations across Ohio, says setting a foundation of open communication at a young age helps tremendously.

“It’s typical for a child to clam up when they are not used to having these types of conversations with their parents,” she says. “This, in turn, leads to the parent talking, but nothing is offered up from the child and no progress is made on the subject.”

No matter the topic, the age of the child or teen is an important factor in deciding what approach to take. Parents should always consider the emotional maturity of their child.

“Put it on the level that your child understands,” Leanza says. “Make sure that the conversation is developmentally appropriate. You’re not going to talk to a 16-year-old the same way you would an 8-year-old. Things need to be simplified and broken down.

She adds, “Even with teens, we have to remember that although they may look 25, they’re only 16. Avoid using abstract words for youngsters and avoid insulting your teen’s intelligence by using immature words.”

Choose the Right Moment
Picking the right time helps to ensure you’ll have their undivided attention. If it’s a personal conversation, finding a private space is a good idea. Also, keep in mind that impromptu, emotional conversations do happen and may be initiated by a curious mind.

When faced with a difficult question, it might be helpful to first ask what your child has already gathered about the topic and use what’s shared as a springboard.

A great opportunity may come from watching a movie or show together that covers the same scenario that you’d like to discuss. You could ask how they would handle themselves or if they’ve ever been in a similar situation. Books also might be a good conversation starter, depending on the age of the child.

Let their Voice be Heard
Remember that more listening and less talking helps to uncover the answers you seek and shows that their voice is being respected. Asking questions like, “How did you come up with that?” or “How did you develop that idea?” helps you to understand on a deeper level.

“Parents should make sure it’s a two-way conversation and not just them talking at their child. Allow enough room for them to express themselves. It’s important that parents do not take over,” Leanza says. “Parents should be mindful not to overwhelm their children by pressing a conversation when the child is not wanting to talk or needing a break.”

Have Open Honesty
Kids respond much better to hearing about personal experience than they do to “Don’t do it because I said so.”

Parents may find themselves in a difficult spot after revealing that they’ve done something — for example, recreational drugs as a teen — but don’t explain what led to that decision. Also, be careful discouraging children about behavior they know you’re currently engaged in, like smoking cigarettes. The children are left confused, thinking or saying, “You did it and you are okay, but now you’re telling me not to?”

If you or your family has a history of struggling with something like alcohol or drugs, being honest may help drive the point home. There are some topics too, like sex, about which you want to help the teen understand and talk openly.

“When it comes to topics like sex, I’ve seen parents try to scare their children into not having it,” Leanza says. “Saying things like ‘You’re going to get all of these venereal diseases’ as opposed to real genuine conversations about sexual health and relationships. Talk to them about how they can navigate a sexual or romantic relationship instead of fear-mongering.”

Agree to Disagree
During your talk, if you realize that you don’t see eye-to-eye, your first reaction may be to lose your cool — don’t. Refrain from slamming down their opinion because it’s different. Remember: the goal is to have continued, open communication.

“I have two children — and my one son, we definitely have different viewpoints in certain areas,” says Leanza. “I think there have to be key ground rules when it comes to this kind of stuff. The conversations shouldn’t have to get so heated that it turns into an argument. If things are (getting) too testy and it’s too much, you should be able to stop and walk away from it or choose to end the conversation. I think that’s really crucial.”

“Speak to them in a way that honors their beliefs,” she adds. “Mutual respect is going to ensure that the conversation doesn’t escalate into an argument.”

If tabling tough conversations repeatedly ends on a sour note and you feel like you can’t effectively communicate, it’s okay to ask for help. It’s possible that the conversation is better suited for both parents’ involvement or maybe, if appropriate, invite someone to whom your child listens to sit in and offer input as a way to help get through to them. If all else fails, it’s okay to enlist a professional counselor who may act as the perfect mediator.

Developing routines to stay abreast of what’s going on regarding the topic discussed also is a good idea. Consider engaging in a regular activity together, one that doubles as an opportunity to follow up on the last talk held on the subject. This creates an ongoing, and hopefully more comfortable, dialogue.

Remember that “the talk” doesn’t have to be one intimidating conversation for you or your child. It can be broken down into a series of small talks, which will help strengthen communication.

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