Feature Archive

Talking With Teens -- Tips for Better Communication

Parents and teens can bridge the communication gap with a little patience and a healthy measure of R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Here are 6 tips for parents and 6 for teenagers.

By Neil Osterweil
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson


A parent's view of speech development: it begins in infancy, blossoms in childhood, and stops dead in its tracks at adolescence.

A teenager's view of speech development: "My parents don't understand a word I'm saying."

You don't need a degree in communications to know that parents and teenagers seem to spend more time talking at and past one another than to or with one another. Chalk it up to different agendas, the stress of daily life, or familiarity breeding contempt. Whatever the reason, adolescents and their folks are as good at making conversation as the construction crew at the Tower of Babel.

But with a little give and take, a lot of patience, and a healthy measure of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, parents and teens may be able to remove the roadblocks hindering two-way communication.

To help understand talking with teens , WebMD interviewed two experts in adolescent development: Laurence Steinberg, PhD, Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia; and Carol Maxym, PhD, who counsels families in Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

First, says Steinberg, parents need to recognize that "although your child doesn't have the same level of knowledge, information, wisdom or experience as you do, he or she has essentially the same logical tools and can see through logical fallacies and lapses in what's sensible."

In other words, the "do-it-because-I-said-so" approach to talking with teens doesn't work anymore. "They can't be bullied around by power-assertive statements by parents that aren't based on any kind of logical reality," Steinberg says.

Teenagers have exquisitely sensitive B.S. detectors, agrees Maxym, who counsels families of troubled adolescents in private practice. "Parents need to be emotionally authentic. Don't try to act as though you are angry when you're really not. Don't try to tell your child 'I'm really hurt when you don't go to school,' when what you really are is angry. Kids know their parents really well and pick up on it, and as soon as you as a parent become inauthentic, you've lost any chance of real communication," says Maxym.

Research also shows that "the big barrier is in how parents and teenagers define issues," If the parent sees a teen's messy room as a moral issue, and the teen sees it as a matter of choice, they may never reach a mutually satisfactory solution, says Steinberg.

What can you do to communicate better? Our experts offer these tips both parents and teenagers:

For Parents

  1. Don't lecture your teen, have a conversation. When parents complain "my teenager doesn't want to talk to me," what they're really complaining about is "my teenager doesn't want to listen to me." Conversation involves at least two people, Steinberg emphasizes.
  2. Don't attack. "The conversation between any two people will break down if one of the two is put on the defensive and made to feel he's being accused of something," says Steinberg.
  3. Show respect for your teen's opinions. Teenagers can be surprisingly easy to talk with if the parents make it clear that they're listening to the teen's point of view.
  4. Keep it short and simple. Maxym urges parents to remember what she calls the "50% rule": "Almost every parent says at least 50% more than he or she should. Shut up. Remember when you were a teen and your parents lectured at you? And you thought, 'Will you please stop; I already got the point!' Stop before your teen gets there."
  5. Be yourself. Don't try to talk like your kids or their friends. "You're an adult, so be an adult," Maxym says.
  6. Seize the moment. A spontaneous conversation in the car or at home late at night -- any time when you're not rushed -- can make for some of the warmest, most rewarding moments, Steinberg says. "I think for parents, one of the key parts of having good communication with kids is being around enough to capitalize on these moments that invariably don't come up when you expect them to."

For Teenagers

  1. Try to understand the situation from your parents' point of view. If your goal is to be allowed to stay out later on Saturday night, for example, try to anticipate what they are concerned about, such as your safety and your whereabouts.
  2. Address their concerns honestly and directly. Try saying something like, "If I am allowed to stay out later, I will tell you in advance where I'm going to be so you know how to reach me," or "I'll call you to let you know what time I'm going to be home, and that way you won't have to worry about it."
  3. Don't go on the defensive. If you feel deeply about the subject of the conversation -- clothes, friends, politics, sex, drugs, whatever -- stick to your guns, but listen to what your parents have to say.
  4. Don't criticize or ridicule their viewpoints. Show them and their opinions the respect you want them to give you.
  5. Make requests. Don't issue a list of demands.
  6. Make "I" statements. Explain your concerns by saying things such as "I feel you're not being fair." Or, "I feel like you're not listening to my side." Avoid "you" statements, such as "You don't know what you're talking about."

Published March 2003.


SOURCES: Laurence Steinberg, PhD, Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology, Temple University. Carol Maxym, PhD, therapist, Honolulu and Washington D.C.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 6:38:23 AM