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5 Ways to Improve Communication with Your Teen

This is a guest post by Dale DePalatis. His new book, Parenting from the Periphery, is now available on Amazon.

5 Ways to Improve Communication with your Teens. Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash

Have you ever looked across the breakfast table at your earbud plugged, morose, self-absorbed teenager and thought, “How do I communicate with this alien?”

I’ve been a high school teacher for 28 years, and I am a parent of three young adult children. These two things have conspired to teach me a few things about teenagers and their parents over the years. It is possible to break through to deeper communication with your teen.

I’d like to share five simple ways to develop and maintain good communication with teens even as they go through the throes of hormones, puberty, general gnarliness and grunge that characterize this strange period of life.

1 | Give them choices. 

Most kids under 10 are used to their parents ordering them around.

“Time to get up.” 

“Be ready to go at 7:00!”

“We’ll be going to your grandparents for Christmas, so I want you to remember to be on your good behavior!”

Although it’s a very good idea to teach your young kids to obey you, it doesn’t work as well when those same kids become teens. 

“I don’t want to get up. Leave me alone! I can get myself up.”

“Why do we have to leave so early?”

“Why do we always have to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s place? It’s boring!”

When your kids start to challenge the orders you give them, instead of dropping the draconian punishment boom on their heads, try to give them a few more choices and let them participate in the decision-making. 

“You decide when you want to get up, but make sure you give yourself enough time to get ready.” 

“I’d like to leave at 7:00, but 7:15 is okay if you’re okay with not having much time to get to your locker before class starts.”

“We haven’t been to Grandma and Grandpa’s place for awhile. We’re thinking this weekend might be good. What is your schedule like? Would this weekend be better or next?” 

Even giving a little bit of choice to your developing young adult will make them feel like they aren’t being treated like a little kid.

2 | Give them space.

Teenagers are in a period of massive change. Some kids grow a foot or more in a year. Radical changes are happening in the body due to hormones. For girls, periods are starting. For boys, the body reacts in different ways when girls are around. 

In the midst of all the physical changes, young people are adjusting to new social situations in middle school and high school. Bigger schools, more anonymity, peer pressure, etc. 

Finally, this is the time when kids are differentiating from their parents. The peer group’s voices become more important than their parents. 

So, give them some space!

With all those changes going on, at times they just need to do nothing. If they aren’t feeling like talking, don’t push it. If they don’t want to go along with the family to Grandma’s house this weekend, let them stay home and work on their homework or just vegetate a bit. If they want to just sit, let them sit.

3 | Talk with them like you would an adult.

Ever heard these words coming out of your mouth as you speak to your teen?

“Finish your dinner.”

“This weekend we’re going on a hike together as a family.”

“I want you to finish your homework before you do anything else tonight.”

The above are the kind of utterances a parent makes to a small child. If you talk like this with your teens, they will feel like you’re treating them like a small child and will resent it. 

Think about it. The main task your teenager is working on is how to grow up to be an adult. Will talking with them like a child help them do that? 

A basic rule of thumb is to think about what words you’d use with a co-worker. 

Instead of telling a co-worker to finish his dinner, you might ask him if he didn’t like it and why. If you wanted to go on a hike with a co-worker, you’d first ask him if he’d like to go, then throw out some suggestions for places that could be discussed. And it’s unlikely you’d place conditions on your co-worker that he or she has to finish a certain amount of work before going to lunch. 

4 | Don’t overreact to their failures.

Have you ever freaked out as a parent over something your child did?

“You backed the car into the wall! Pay attention!”

“You got another ‘D’! You are grounded until you get those grades up!”

“Why didn’t you call me? It’s two in the morning!”

We love our kids, and it’s hard to see them making questionable or even downright foolish choices in life. Overreacting to the sometimes-stupid things they do is the best way to get them to clam up and determine to keep you in the dark about later events in their lives.

Instead, be an adult, and talk with them as you would another adult.

“Oops! It looks like you backed up a little too far. Do you think you can get this car out of the rose bushes without too much damage?”

“It seems like you’re struggling in Geometry. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yeah, I’ve lost track of the time before, too, but it’s important for us to know where you are when it gets late. How do you think you can do better on that?”

Calm, reasoned questions that ask the teen to take adult responsibility will go a long way in developing the likelihood that they’ll share the next stumble with you.

5 | Listen to them with respect.

Finally, listen to your children. 

Really listen. 

When you ask them to respond like an adult, listen for an adult-like answer and respect their opinion. 

Although they may not always respond like an adult, listen for adult-like reactions and encourage those. 

“Do you think you can get your clothes washed today? It’s harder to get done during the school week.”

“I hate doing the wash! Do I have to?”

“It’s up to you. I know you don’t like it much when you run out of socks in the middle of the week.” 

“All right. I guess I can get it started this morning.” 

“If I hear the washer finish, I’ll try to help you by shifting the laundry to the dryer.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

You might be surprised how giving your teenager some choices and space, then speaking with them like an adult and respectfully listening to their answers will develop a much smoother communication between you.

Dale DePalatis is a high school English teacher in Carmel, California. He’s recently published a book, Parenting from the Periphery, that gives more insight into why teenagers are the way they are and how parents can help them navigate those difficult and sometimes dangerous waters of pre-adulthood. 

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