Communicating with your teen can seem like trying to solve a puzzle of a million pieces, not knowing what it is supposed to look like in the end. Though it is rewarding to see some pieces put together, it can be anywhere from confusing or frustrating to exhausting.
While there’s no key to a perfect relationship, there are plenty of tools to help build a trusting and supportive one. In this article, you will find 10 do’s and don’ts to help you communicate with your teen more effectively.
Table of Contents
- How Your Teen’s Brain Development Affects Their Behavior
- #1. Listen, Don’t Lecture
- #2. Be Present, Don’t Fix Feelings
- #3. Get Curious, Don’t Judge
- #4. Reflect and Discuss
- #5. Include Them in Decision Making
- #6. Keep Promises
- #7. Set Boundaries
- #8. Help Develop Social Skills
- #9. Treat Them With Respect
- #10. Use External Resources
How Your Teen’s Brain Development Affects Their Behavior
First off, there are a few things you should keep in mind about the teen mind.
In the book “Why do they act this way?”, psychologist Dr. David Walsh, explains that the “transition from childhood to maturity is nothing short of a metamorphosis”.
Their bodies and minds are literally being remodeled to become more efficient.
1. They Struggle To Plan And Make Good Long-Term Decisions.
If you find yourself confused with your teen’s impulsive actions in situations where they should have thought things through, keep in mind that the part of the brain that is responsible for those functions is still in the making.
The changes in the brain in adolescence begin from the back brain. They progress to the prefrontal cortex, which is where the decision-making, problem-solving, planning, and impulse control happen.
2. They Are Likely To Take More Risks, And Quickly Develop Or Change Interests
If you are scared of their risk-taking and rebellious spirit, or are confused by their frequent changes in interests and opinions, remember that this is also a part of their brain development.
The parts of the brain associated with reward generally develop more quickly than those associated with inhibition and self-control. This is because of the greater activity in their dopamine signaling – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and curiosity.
Studies show that teens experience bigger spikes in dopamine release when they experience something new and exciting than adults and children. So, their brain gives them an extra reward when they try something new and enjoy it. That, in combination with executive functioning skills in the prefrontal cortex that are still developing, can lead to risky behaviors.
The key is not to focus solely on restrictions and control, but on understanding what they find interesting and exciting. This can help expose them to positive novel experiences.
3. They Have More Frequent Mood Swings.
Mood swings can appear as the result of fluctuations in neurotransmitters and hormones.
Neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin, GABA, and cortisol can significantly modify your teen’s mood. They can lift a person up and pull them down quickly, leaving you confused with how your teen can be so enthusiastic about something one moment, and then so upset or sad the next. Teenage years are neither here (childhood) nor there (adulthood), which is why it can be a very confusing and awkward stage of life. This is also why your teen can seem both so mature and so childlike. The next 10 do’s and don’ts are here to help you navigate through changes and build a stronger bond with your teen.
#1. Listen, Don’t Lecture
Don’t: Lecture About What They Should And Shouldn’t Have Done
Do: Listen And Inspire Forward Thinking
The odds are that the moment you start to lecture them, your teen is checking out of the conversation. They’ll think that you care more about what you have to say, than trying to understand their point of view.
I know it can feel like things would be much easier if they “listen to you” but lecturing is one of the least effective ways they learn from their experiences. Instead of lecturing, here’s what you can do:
1.Listen – and listen to understand, not to judge. What is the logic behind their decision-making process? What is making them feel the way they do? Try to look at things from their point of view, not your own.
As they explain their point of view, they are also improving in verbalizing their thoughts and emotions. This allows them to share their experiences and consult with others more efficiently in the future.
2.Inspire forward thinking with questions such as: “Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?” or “What do you feel would be helpful in this situation?”
#2. Be Present, Don’t Fix Feelings
Don’t: Try To Fix Their Feelings
Do: Be Present With Their Feelings
This is a challenging task for most parents because they struggle to sit with their own discomfort. In a lot of cases, you just want to save your kid from feeling bad. You want to tell their friend that what they did was mean or go to the teacher and tell them how unfair a grade was.
However, it is not your job to make your teen happy. Your job is to stay present with your teen through discomfort so that they can process their unpleasant feelings and then decide what they want to do on their own.
Avoid sentences such as “you shouldn’t feel bad because of it”, “when are you going to stop being angry about it?” or “what can I do for you to stop feeling this way?”. Instead, ask “how does this feel for you?” or say “I am sorry, I understand that this is a challenging situation to process” or “I know that this is unpleasant right now and I strongly believe that you will find your way through this. I am here for you.”
#3. Get Curious, Don’t Judge
Don’t: Judge And Dismiss Their Interests
Do: Get Curious And Learn About What They Enjoy
I am not asking you to love the same things your teen does. I am inviting you to get curious about their interests. You also do not have to change your opinion about their interests, simply understanding them and allowing your teen space for the hobby is enough.
So, if they love K-Pop, you do not have to love it. But you should do your best to understand what “K-Pop” is. Here are some of the questions you can ask: “I don’t know much about _________ but I see how much you enjoy it. Could you tell me more about it?” Or, “what is it that you find the most interesting / fun / inspiring, etc. in ___________”. Do not use these questions to back up your arguments as to why something they enjoy is wrong or boring or weird. Their interests are a part of them. Do not dismiss them.
Teens often communicate through their interests. Knowing how much these topics mean to them, can help you bridge the gap when they struggle to verbalize how they feel. For example, when they struggle to explain how they feel you could ask “Is there a k-pop song that can explain your emotions?”
#4. Reflect and Discuss
Don’t: Act Defensively When They Give You Negative Feedback
Do: Reflect On It, Assume Responsibility, And Discuss It With Them
Teens will criticize you. A big part of being a teenager is questioning authority. Although this process will feel unpleasant, it is what they are supposed to do.Your job is not to retreat defensively into “you cannot criticize me, I am your parent” or “you should be grateful for all the things I am doing for you!”. Your job is to listen and reflect upon their feedback, even when it is given in a mean and impulsive way.
Here’s how you can get started:“Your words were hurtful to me. It is very difficult for me to hear your point of view when you express it so harshly. I DO want to hear you because your opinion matters to me. How about we take a break and then come back to talk about this?”
Admit when you are wrong. “I made a mistake. I should have asked you about it first. I am sorry.” Assuming responsibility for your mistakes will not make you less of an authority. It will show your teen how to respond to negative feedback.Showing vulnerability will not make you less of an authority. However, if you refuse to admit when you are wrong, snap at your teenager, or create unreasonable justifications, you will lose their respect.
#5. Include Them in Decision Making
Don’t: Make Decisions For Them, Without Them
Do: Consult With Them On Decisions That Are About Them And Guide Them Through Decision-Making
As their prefrontal cortex changes, their decision-making skills are also developing and improving. This means that sometimes, they will make bad decisions and you need to let them do so.You may feel like it’s safer to decide for them. However, what you think helps them short-term, causes harm in the long run.They need to learn to assume responsibility for their own decisions. Instead of telling them outright what to do or doing it for them, teach them how to look at their options and evaluate them. Teach them how to think about short and long-term consequences. You should also teach them how to recover from bad decisions.
#6. Keep Promises
Don’t: Betray Their Trust
Do: Keep Your Promises
If you make a promise, keep it. If you say you will stay out of something, don’t meddle. If they tell you a secret, do not share it with others (if you need to consult with someone about what they have shared, ensure that this is a person you can trust). If a teen feels they can trust you with their thoughts and feelings, then they feel safe with you. A big part of that safety comes from how you respond. If they realize you are lying, the trust will break. If they see you hiding your true feelings, they will learn to do the same. To keep the trust going, you need to be truthful.
#7. Set Boundaries
Don’t: Confuse Trust With A Lack Of Boundaries
Do: Set Boundaries
Teens love their freedom but they still need structure. In fact, by setting clear boundaries you make it easier for them to make decisions.Their impulse-control and decision-making processes are still “under construction” which means that, if you leave it completely up to them to figure things out, they are likely to feel overwhelmed. Though they may complain about rules such as “no phones in the bedroom after 9 pm” or “no video games before homework is done”, boundaries such as these help them learn how to control their impulses and postpone instant gratification.
If they show a lot of resistance to the boundaries you set, listen to what they need to say. Advocating for oneself is a useful skill to practice. Let them make their case and review whether the boundaries should be updated.For example, if they are really bothered by the “no video games before homework is done” rule, suggest an experiment. If they finish the homework on time and play video games as they like for two weeks in a row, you will give up on the rule.
Don’t: Meddle In Their Relationships
Do: Listen And Help With Social Skills
Teens are very sensitive about how others perceive them. A part of this can be attributed to the changes in their brain. You will mean well, but every time you decide to meddle in their relationships with peers, assume that you are doing something wrong. Most teens are going to be embarrassed when their parents do the talking for them. They want to appear and act like adults, even when they lack the capacity to do so.
Instead, make space for your teenager to talk to you freely. Listen attentively and empathize. Hold the space for them to process their feelings. Do not focus on having the solution for them, but on validating their feelings and helping them navigate towards finding the solution.
Here are examples of questions you can use for guidance:
“How did that make you feel?”
“Tell me more about your expectations.”
“Did you get a chance to talk to them about it? How did that go?”
“If you were to communicate that with them, what do you think that would be like?”
“What do you wish you could have told them?”
“It is okay to have these emotions. Relationships can be challenging. They take time, effort, and thoughtfulness.”
“Is there anything we can do together that would be helpful?”
#9. Treat Them With Respect
Don’t: Talk Down To Them
Do: Treat Them Respectfully
Every time you talk down to them, shame them, or use sarcasm to comment on their behavior, you are undermining their confidence. There will be times when you feel so irritated or annoyed by their behavior that you may be tempted to respond with something hurtful just to make them realize how wrong they are. Be mindful of those feelings. They are an invitation to look into your own experiences.
“If you want to be treated respectfully, you need to show respect” is one of the usual parent arguments for why they talk down to their teens. However, it is us adults that need to model emotional regulation and maturity. You can only ask for the respect that you are willing to give.
#10. Use External Resources
Don’t: Expect Yourself To Have All The Answers
Do: Look For Resources And Support
Nobody is proficient at parenting. Everybody is learning on the go. What used to work when your kid was 10, may not work for them when they are 13. Actually, what used to work with them yesterday may not apply today! That is just one of the many perks of being a parent to a teenager.
Notice how you are changing as a person and as a parent, while your kid is transitioning to adulthood. Connect to other parents, support groups, life coaches, and mental health professionals who can really understand you and provide guidance during challenging periods. It takes a village to raise a kid. Connect with the people in your “village”. There are many amazing resources to help you through this stage in their life. Here are some that we can recommend.
- Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety: A Complete Guide to Your Child’s Stressed, Depressed, Expanded, Amazing Adolescence (Parenting Tips, Raising Teenagers, Gift for Parents)
- Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood
- He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe In Himself
Their teenage years are one of the most significant and formative years of your kid’s life. They will be challenging, but they can also be incredibly rewarding. That being said, here’s a bonus tip:
Don’t: Aim For The Perfect Relationship.
Do: Embrace The Messy And Imperfect One That You Are Having. Do Your Best To Make It A Loving, Trusting, And Supporting One.