Keeping the Line of Communication Open between Parents and Adolescents

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By Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. 

When children reach their teen years, they’d like to believe that they no longer need any instruction or advice from their parents. Yet they continue to need the same loving care, but in new ways that respect their growing autonomy. 

Central to teenagers’ needs is the ability of their parents to listen to them and to respect their ideas, points of view, feelings and intentions. This requires that parents learn to listen nonjudgmentally without interrupting, correcting or blaming. When a teen feels heard, she feels respected and forms a good relationship with her parents.

How do parents effectively listen to their teens? 

It’s important that parents take the time needed to have both casual and serious discussions with their teens. Beginning with casual discussions opens the door to conversations about more serious issues. Hanging out with your teen, talking together in the car, doing chores together and setting rules and boundaries together all allow teens to feel confident that their parents care and respect them. Respect is key to having your adolescent want to talk with you often and openly. Listening is an art. Parents who actively listen will find that they learn about what’s on the minds of their teens and what they’re dealing with. They learn their teens’ points of view, philosophies of life and feelings about their peers and others in their daily lives. If parents don’t interrupt their teens’ words to interject their own points of view, they’ll find they are more open and willing to share their ideas and feelings with their listening parent. 

Listening tips for parents

1. Resist the urge to interrupt with your own point of view, even if you’re diametrically opposed to your teen’s views. Let your teen finish explaining his opinion.

2. Don’t let yourself become distracted by your phone or another child’s questions when talking to your teen. Let the teen know she has your full attention.

3. Extend the conversations by always asking your teen to tell you more about their views before offering your opinions. Open ended statements like, “Please tell me more about that. I want to better understand what you mean,” are very effective in letting the teen elaborate on his thoughts.

4. Ask your teen if she wants to know your point of view before expressing it. She’ll appreciate your offer to involve yourself in the discussion.

5. If you want to inquire about your child’s behavior, be specific about the actions he’s taking that you question. Remember not to be blameful and judgmental, just inquisitive. This is a good time to discuss if curfews are needed. Often, teens feel more respected if they’re told to make wise decisions on their own about when to come home in the evening. 

6. Praise your teen for thinking through her actions. Let her know that you’re aware that she is a good judge of her actions and beliefs. Teens appreciate their parents’ acceptance of their positive intentions to cooperate and collaborate on rules. 

How to give advice to your teen

When you feel your teen needs advice about relationships, sex, drugs or emotional changes such as mood swings, ask him if he’s open to talking about these topics. If he’s not, refrain and wait until he’s more willing to open up to you. You can share your discomforts and feelings with your teen openly by expressing straightforwardly: “I feel concerned when you’re in a lousy mood. Can we discuss that? I want to help.” By sticking to a question format, you’ll not be intrusive or undermine his privacy. Again, respect is key.

Problem solving with your teen

Once communication is open, you can address what your teen or you view as problems in your relationship. Teens need to know that you respect their boundaries and their right to have their own secrets. Ask if there is any discomfort in the teen’s relationship with you that you can address together. The teen will be appreciative of your honesty and forthrightness.

If you have a specific problem in mind, spell it out honestly without judgment and ask your child how to solve it. Prioritize problems. Messy rooms aren’t important compared to getting a good night’s sleep. Discuss with your teen what problems she thinks need to be solved and collaborate together to find out her motivations and what will meet both her needs and your own.  

Relating to your teen is not as difficult as parents imagine. Teens who feel they can talk with their caring parents push back much less and rebel less often because they feel heard and understood. It needn’t be a turbulent time if communication is open and honest. 

Laurie Hollman, PhD, is a psychoanalyst specializing in modern parent-child relationships and an award-winning three-time author. Widely published in hundreds of academic journals and popular media outlets, she has taught postgraduate courses at New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research, among other universities and institutes. Her new companion books are The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children and Teens: The Parental Intelligence Way and The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anger in Children and Teens: The Parental Intelligence Way. Learn more at lauriehollmanphd.com