Communicating with Teens


Q: I am the mother of a 15-year-old daughter. We used to be very close, but it seems as if everything I say lately is wrong and leads to heated arguments. I don’t know how to talk to her anymore without it ending up negatively. How do I get my relationship back with my daughter?

A: Ah, the joys of having children who dare turn into the everyday monsters we have come to know and love as teenagers. One day we know exactly how to communicate with our children — after all, isn’t that the most basic of all skills?

Then WHAM! Overnight they seem to morph into confusing, volatile, defensive and non-communicative teenagers, leaving parents often at a loss over how to deal with, much less, reach them through any attempt at communication.

The art of communication is something we often take for granted. After all, we do it every day. How hard can it really be? Well, harder than one might imagine and oftentimes it’s not done in the most helpful manner.

First, teenagers are their own mess of emotions. It is a time of desperate attempts to individuate themselves from their parents and although this might feel like they are abandoning you, it is healthy. The road they must travel to do this is often turbulent and confusing, not only for them, but for you, the parent, as well.

So, as with any good relationship, you want to instill a strong rapport filled with respect. Easy, huh? Maybe not as much as you might think. Respecting teenagers means not placing judgment when you think what they are doing is stupid. (Granted, it’s not a situation putting them into harm’s way.) You should respect their decisions even though they might be different from what you would have chosen for yourself.

Try to see your teenage daughter as an individual who is beginning to think for herself. For you, the parent, it’s also a struggle to begin to relinquish some of that control that you’ve held onto so tightly for all these years.

The second step is using positive pronouns. This is simple. If you are upset by something and want to discuss it, there is no better way to shut your teenager down than to say “YOU did/do blah blah blah.” Teens are very sensitive to blame and unfortunately expect hostility around every corner. So, if you want to hold their attention for a few seconds (at least!) try starting by saying, “I feel ...” Be cognizant of recognizing and expressing how you feel. For instance, “I feel worried and upset when you don’t talk to me. I’m afraid we’re not as close as we used to be, and I miss that.” It’s hard for someone to shut down when you are expressing your feelings. The primary reason for this is that there are no right or wrong types of feelings. Also, you are pulling the attention to you and the outcome of the action instead of going straight for the jugular.

The third, and final simple tip for communication, is to listen intently. How often do we all sit there and think of all our possible rebuttals and arguments while the other person is still talking? I admit it, I do it, too. It can be hard, extremely so when we’re emotional, to stop and listen to the other person. To read underneath the words to the emotion and fully understand where they are coming from and then respond accordingly. Remember, a conversation doesn’t have to be a speed war. Take your time, think about your response, think about what they she and how it makes you feel.

Hopefully, these simple tricks will help you in opening a path of communication with your teenager.

Heather F. McCain, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at Moses Cone Behavioral Health Center. Please submit your questions to “Is My Kid OK?” by e-mailing
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