Teenagers are known for being moody, irritable and stressed out. Just watch any old episode of Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls or Glee. Trying to get through to your teen can feel about as productive as trying to get your houseplant to empty the dishwasher. The teen-parent relationship is often a power struggle: a seemingly perpetual game of tug-o-war. You want to be supportive, loving and open while simultaneously trying to enforce cell phone limitations and curfews. Meanwhile, your once kind and courteous child is asserting himself in a way that makes you wonder whether, in your years of parenting, you’ve ever done anything right.
While we can’t change the growing pains that accompany the teenage years, we have compiled some helpful suggestions to maximizing communication between you and your teen. After all, communication is the key to a healthy relationship. (Even if it is in the form of a text message).
- Be authentic. Teens can see right through feigned anger and forced smiles. Honesty and transparency are critical to getting through to your teen. Admit your own vulnerabilities: mention that this is your first time parenting and you’re figuring things out, too. You may make mistakes along the way. Letting your guard down makes you more relatable and less of an adversary. Not that you should put yourself in anything less than a position of authority, but admitting that you don’t have all the answers can help level the playing field.
- Stay calm. You may have noticed by now that yelling and screaming doesn’t get you very far, and only serves to escalate the situation until one or both parties stomps out of the room and slams her respective door. Despite the fact that you may be approaching your boiling point, try to keep your composure. Breathe. Stay firm and unrelenting in your rules. (And then go scream into your pillow.)
- Embrace spontaneity. Raising serious matters in an unexpected way can help make the situation less intimidating so that your teen is more willing to open up. Casually ask about the failed math test while you’re daughter is setting the table, or nonchalantly ask about your son’s crush while he’s playing hoops in the driveway.
- Listen. You don’t have to have an answer for everything, try and solve your teen’s problems or resolve their conflicts. Says Michael Rich, MD, MPH, FAAP, FSAHM, “Listen well. Hear their solutions. Redirect or make suggestions or help them to synthesize and understand where they stumble. Don’t tell them what they should do, but tell them what they can do and let them figure it out for themselves. Because ultimately they will, whether it’s in communication with us or not.“
- Accept. Spoiler alert: Your teen might not always agree with you. She may not always make the same decisions that you would have (to say the least). But she is figuring out how to be independent and make choices for herself. Show respect and support during this critical time – as your child navigates her way into adulthood.
- Apologize. Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. It’s OK if you mess up on occasion – in fact, it’s healthy to show your teens that you are not infallible –you’re human. You’re modeling healthy behavior and teaching your teen to own up to his mistakes. And hopefully, if you show compassion for his blunders, he’ll empathize with yours.
- Talk about the weather. Don’t forget to talk about things that don’t involve chores, rules or schoolwork. Watch a movie together. Go out for ice cream. Discuss your favorite sports team. Have a healthy debate about which Harry Potter book is best. It’s good to practice talking about things—even things that you don’t agree on—when there isn’t a consequence at stake. When no one is right and no one is wrong. Where you can respect each other’s viewpoints and no one is going to get punished or yelled at.
- Ask open-ended questions. “Did you finish your homework?” “Did you have a good day at school?” “Did you put your clothes in the laundry?” “Did you remember your soccer uniform?” Life can feel like a never-ending checklist. Sometimes you need quick answers to crucial questions. But when there’s time, make room for less tactical ones. “How was your trip to the mall on Sunday?” “What do you want to do for spring break?” “What’s your favorite TV show these days?”
- Drive. You’d be amazed how much more open your teen might be if she didn’t need to look you in the eyes. There is something about direct eye contact that can make teens – or anyone for that matter – feel defensive: not a good dynamic for candid discussion. Next time you’ve got your teen captive in the car, try asking questions. (If it goes nowhere, at least you can always turn up the radio.)
- Write a letter. These tips might be easier said than done. Our emotions often get the best of us, and conversations can get heated quickly. That’s if your teen looks up from her iPhone long enough for you to know whether she’s actually listening. Maybe “uh-huh” is about as in-depth a response as you’re going to get these days. Even if your teen is talkative, there’s always the issue of time. When sports and social lives take precedence over family dinners and free time, it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with your teen for more time than it takes her to tie her shoes. You can still speak your mind without having to say a word. Write a post-it-note of encouragement, email a reminder, or compose a four-page letter with everything you’ve been wanting to say for weeks. At the very least, send her a smiley face emoticon before her first date.
Warning: there will likely be significant “trial and error” before you find the communication tactic that works best for you and your teen. But when you try to see things through teenage eyes, encourage open and honest conversation, and listen to what they have to say without trying to teach them a lesson, you may just find you’ve got more to talk about than you thought.