Being a teenager can be tough. During the pre-teen years and adolescence, a lot of changes occur, both physically and emotionally. It can also be a tricky time for you as a parent, as you grapple with a new dynamic. Here, we share how to communicate more effectively with your teen, keep your relationship healthy, strong and respect their boundaries and independence.
Your relationship with your teen might have changed, or could be about to change, as they strive for independence and branch out independently – sometimes distancing themselves from you.
Ironically though, the teen years can be when our kids need us the most. If they run into some trouble or find themselves in a challenging situation, they’ll need us there as a sounding board, or to provide support. It’s important to know that they still keep an eye on us, even if they don’t act like it!
Teens need us now just as much as they did when they were younger, and it’s important to encourage them to come to us with any problems they’re having. This is why good communication is an integral part of raising children. Sometimes as a parent, it’s easy to feel like giving up because you’ve “tried every thing”. It’s at these times that it is important to keep connected and communicating.
As your teen changes – physically, mentally and emotionally – the way you effectively communicate with them should evolve, too.
Tips for more effective communication with your teenager
Here are some ways to adapt your communication style to keep your relationship healthy and strong, while being sensitive to your teens’s new boundaries and increased need for independence.
1. Be interested in the little things
We need to show our children that we’re interested in all areas of their lives. If we’re open and engaged when they talk about the little stuff, they’ll come to us with the bigger stuff, too. Showing interest shows you accept who your young person is becoming and will help strengthen your relationship and connection.
2. Strive to be non-judgmental
Your young person is discovering themselves and what they like, dislike and value outside of their relationship with you and their immediate family, and it might mean you sometimes disagree with their opinions or choices.
Try to remain non-judgmental when you listen to them or speak about their choices. They may end up becoming secretive or hiding things if they expect to be judged or shamed. It doesn’t mean you can’t still have behavioural boundaries but try to limit criticism or judgement of their thoughts, feelings and choices and keep strong emotions out of the conversation.
You can instead focus on the outcome or the behaviour but try to avoid naming and shaming your teen directly. For example, instead of saying, “you really disappointed me when you did XYZ” you could try something like “I don’t agree with XYZ, and we will need to talk about how to handle this situation, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you”.
3. Respect their privacy
You can set expectations or rules around curfews, social media, or open/closed door policies in your house, but as your teen is growing, they need space and privacy for themselves.
Work with them to find out what they need and negotiate or explore what this looks like in your family. Don’t snoop and avoid entering their private space without their knowledge or permission, as it can break down trust if you do.
4. Involve them in decisions
Consequences, rules and boundaries can be more effective if your young person is part of the decision-making process. This strategy is a great way of giving some responsibility and accountability to your teen.
If they’re involved in the decision-making process, it means they’ll remember the conversation and consequences, and it will probably be more meaningful for them. This means they are more likely to adhere to the request or rules.
5. Identify your non-negotiables but pick your battles
If you have too many rules, or they are all “non-negotiables”, you will be in constant conflict with your teen and likely feel exhausted and frustrated. Pick the values or rules that you just cannot tolerate or allow – for some families it’s honesty or respect, for others it could be manners or tidiness.
Whatever you choose, make sure your teen knows what the non-negotiable is and the consequences for non-adherence, but pick your battles the rest of the time. Consider whether it’s worth raising now, or at all, and what gains could be made from doing so. Sometimes it’s easier on you both to let certain things go.
6. Model respectful communication
If you want your teen to have positive, open and respectful communication with you, then you need to show them what it looks like. Not only in the way you communicate with them, but also how you do with others – including in your family or out in the community. It’s important to model positive and respectful verbal communication and body language, because our teens will see the double standard if we ask them to adhere to this but cannot do so ourselves.
7. Be mindful of body language
Make sure you consider non-verbal body language to show your teen that you’re interested, engaged and respectful while you’re having a conversation or they’re telling you about their day. Facing them, looking them in the eye and keeping your body posture relaxed all show you’re listening and focused. Nod along to show you’re engaged or encourage them to continue without interruption.
8. The art of taking a pause
We can feel pressured to react instinctively to parenting triggers or certain situations. But when we react, we often keep playing into old habits or patterns that aren’t helpful.
Instead, learn the art of taking a pause and taking stock so you can reflect and decide on an intentional way forward – try to act rather than react. Try saying, “your question is really important; I need to take some time to consider how I’m going to respond” or “I’m thinking about how I am going to respond to that. I need to take some time to think, but I’ll get back to you soon”. If it’s an important decision, ensure you chat with others too, before deciding.
9. Be able to regulate your own emotions
Navigating the teen years as a parent can be stressful. Make sure you’re engaging in self-care and managing your own emotions. This will help you approach situations in a calm way, that’s less likely to escalate things. You’re also less likely to lash out or react rashly if you’re feeling calm. It’s OK if you need to take time out to breathe or calm down before you restart the conversation to tackle a tricky situation with your teen, and this can be really important modelling for them
Communicating more effectively with your teen can be challenging. It may take time, persistence, dedication and a whole lot of patience before you develop a new way to work together. If you find that you’re struggling to make progress, or your relationship with your adolescent isn’t where you would like it to be, it might be a sign to seek some professional support.