Talking with your teenager

As parents, we do not always remember how it feels as a teenager, but during these crucial years the realities teens must face and overcome have changed over time and become more complex than many parents can relate to, and this can be tough for both sides. There are numerous expectations that teens nowadays have to manage, some real and some imagined. Oftentimes, a lot of empathy and good communication does a world of good for getting results on both sides. As someone who works with young adults to support confident career choices, I see every day how strong family support built on connectedness and communication can power healthy success for young adults.

Here’s how to make sure you are both listening:

#1 Acknowledge the Pressure

‘Mistakes and pressure are inevitable; the secret to getting past them is to stay calm.’

– Travis Bradberry

Being a teenager is a time of great discovery, wonder and excitement. It is also a time of great uncertainty about who they are, what their mark on the world could be, and discovering from all the options open, what their path forward will be. Teenagers have a profound need to prove themselves, as they strive to find their voice and figure out their place in society. Add to this the pressure they face from peers and the adults in their life to establish how their academic and career focus can facilitate these changing ideas and expectations, it is no wonder their actions are viewed as erratic at times.

This pressure is compounded by physiology when you look at the insane amount of brain development that starts in the teenage years and doesn’t end until the age of 25. While charting a path, and working hard academically, the teenage brain’s pre-frontal cortex (the decision-making command centre) is still being developed, and teens generally work more with the amygdala- the emotional nervous centre (of sorts). This means they are more heavily affected by emotional concerns and therefore think less and act emotionally more. The inter-connectedness between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex is still an early work in progress.

This explains the increased stress and worry about what others think and the fear of missing out (FOMO) that accounts for irrational impulsive actions. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for what we call executive function. Executive function include decision-making, impulse control, planning, prioritizing complex and competing information, and managing distractions. Knowing and acknowledging this as a parent will help you develop the empathy and control in dealing with disappointments when your teenager does things, or doesn’t remember to do things, that frustrate you.

There’s a lot going on!

What can you do?

Being part of their life means you need to know how they’re thinking about life as a first step and be considerate of the huge level of change they are dealing with on an almost daily basis. Being angry that their room is a disaster zone when all they are thinking about is their maths test the next day can cause an argument that could have been easily avoided through calm ongoing communication and family awareness.

Take an active interest in what they like. This doesn’t mean you need to like it yourself or engage directly, it means opening the channels for understanding their motivators – what they like and why, and what they get out of it.

#2 Make Your Home a Place of Honest and Open Communication

‘We are stronger when we listen, and smarter when we share.’

– Rania Al-Abdullah

How often have you walked away from a conversation with your teenager feeling frustrated or angry? How often have you said things in the heat of the moment that you later regretted, knowing that it had made the situation worse, or upset your son or daughter?  In the heat of the moment, it’s all too easy to lash out because of our own hurt or disappointment.  Without honest and open communication, bonds and hearts break. It takes an effort to continue to be patient and loving in challenging situations, but the good news is that the more we practice, the better we get at keeping kindness front and centre of our family environment.

What practices are you actively doing to keep that communication flowing?

  • Engagement is easy to achieve yet it requires a concerted effort, whether it is eating meals as a family, organising a movie night or finding a form of exercise or sport you all love. Just make sure you have family time that revolves around fun and relaxation, not just expectations, work, goals and future planning.
  • Active listening is the magic of truly listening to your teen and putting yourself aside. By being present for them, and allowing them to raise a topic and sound out their ideas, they feel comfortable to explore, knowing they won’t be judged or lectured.
  • Being present even on your busiest of days can make sure that you pick up on any moments of joy or warning signs. If you consider that ‘experts in interpersonal communication have estimated that nonverbal communication constitutes approximately 70 percent of what is involved in communication’, taking the time to really engage when your teenager appears is key. Instead of the cursory ‘How was your day?’, physically interacting with a welcome smile or hug and a chat can make them feel that here is a place where they are the most important person in the world, and it’s okay to say what’s really on their mind.  
  • Being a little extra careful and cautious when reacting to words and scenarios that might come up will go a long way to ensuring that your teen doesn’t feel isolated or shut down. Remember that they are often quite sensitive to the reactions of the amygdala, and emotions will take over, making them seem irrational.
  • Get to know what your young adult loves doing and what they hate doing. Understanding how they enjoy spending their time and what makes them happy is one of the most important ways you can create common ground for positive, interactive conversation.
  • Making conversation the norm sounds likes stating the obvious, yet for many families, online conversation and social contact can be a default setting. Think about the trend of seeing young kids watching phones or I-pads in shopping carts, cars or restaurants when out with parents, when historically they would be part of the experience or using this time to daydream and observe. Making conversation the norm is an active process, from ensuring that mealtimes are a non-device zone, to sharing news and anecdotes from your day, and listening with interest when your teen does the same (if even it’s not your favourite topic!).

Author of ‘The Routledge Handbook of Family Communication’, Anita L. Vangelisti writes that research consistently shows ‘Good family communication is important because families are what we most often turn to for support. If families aren’t communicating, support systems can fall apart.’

#3 Talk About What You Think, Not What You Want

‘To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.’

– Tony Robbins

Confidence and success are generated from acceptance of your tribe. Wherever your young adult gets their support, traditional or otherwise, embrace it as this is how they will grow. Your job as a parent is to make sure you are welcome and looked at as part of that support.  

As you navigate the teenage years, the days of telling your son or daughter what you want to be done and by when are long gone. At best, it will be met with a roll of the eyes, but with the amygdala in charge, it is much more likely to provoke a stronger reaction.  Teenagers will often refuse to be micro-managed (even if they don’t tell you so) and trying to do so can create rebellion and friction, whether it be passive non-communication/non-acceptance or active, visible, and sometimes dangerous, rule-breaking. When parents don’t encourage their teens to make and take responsibility for their decisions, teenagers don’t feel understood, trusted or heard, and will stop communicating.

Some teens I have worked with take a different approach and decide to

  • Instead of telling your teen what you want, try asking your teen what they think. Involve them in the process. Let’s loop back to that age-old issue of the ‘untidy bedroom’. It’s common for a parent to shout out in sheer frustration, ‘Your room is a complete tip. Get it sorted. How can you stand it?” Well, clearly, they can stand it, otherwise they would have done something about it! Turning it on its head can make sure you both share what’s on your mind without the confrontation: ‘What do you have on today? Maybe you have some time to do a bit of a de-clutter in here? What do you think?’ This approach will make the point about the room, at the same time as doing a check on whether they have something in the pipeline that they are stressed about or is more of a priority for them.
  • When you talk with your teen, how much of your attention is focused on listening to what they are saying/ or not saying and observing their non-verbal cues? Or are you just talking at them? Look out for when they clam up, and when they are more conversational and willing to share information, and build on the latter times to create a relationship of two-way trust. Understanding the pattern can help you to identify underlying issues and worries, as well as allowing them to explore their own values and opinions based on what matters to them.

‘There is a lot of pressure put on me, but I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel if I play my game, it will take care of itself.’

– LeBron James

The movement of teenagers away from following parent rules to wanting to express their own advice is normal and necessary. Being aware of this can at least lessen the stress and anxiety, and help you embrace the fact that your new parent superpower lies in the positive influence you still bring to the party. It also means that your young adult will be equipped with the confidence to follow their own path, knowing that you will respect and support their choices as long as they are responsible in return.  


In the words of actress Emma Thompson, ‘Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.’ Our key priority must be to start with understanding, even when we don’t understand. Appreciate their changes and their journey to find their why and purpose in life. In a study published in 2008 in PNAS (National Academy of Science in the US), a study suggested that ‘adolescent brain structure is associated with affective behaviour and its regulation in the context of family interactions.

Science doesn’t make parenting easier, but by providing context, it has helped engender more empathy and reduce many parent’s fears about their parenting ability.  Getting to know your teenager’s thoughts with understanding and empathy will allow conversation to bubble up naturally in the freedom you create between you, and keep you connected.