Best-ever communication tips around teens

After teaching, counselling and living with teens for 40 years, I have worked out some of the things that can improve our capacity as grown-ups – those who have pre-frontal lobes – to connect and communicate with teens who are on the bumpy ride to becoming adults.

Firstly I need to reassure you that living and working with teens is not all doom and gloom as many are keen to portray.

Sure the mix of physical changes, hormonal changes and brain changes does cause confusion and angst that can lead to raised voices, slammed doors, increased body odour and poor choices around clothes. Yes they can make poor choices that can cause pain, suffering or death – but so can many grown-ups.

However I agree with Dr Dan Siegel in his excellent book Brainstorm (2013) where he reminds us that:

“ …the testing of boundaries, the passion to explore what is unknown and exciting – can set the stage for the development of core character traits that will enable adolescents to go on to lead great lives of adventure and purpose.”

Those of you who are in the midst of parenting young adolescents from 12 to 16 might believe that Dr Siegel is being overly optimistic and needs to have a peek into your kitchen some mornings.

Given the absence of a fully functioning prefrontal cortex until its completion in the mid-20s research shows that adolescents benefit enormously from the guiding presence of grown-ups, parents, educators, coaches and extended family and friends.

Why do they need this guidance? A unique characteristic in teen decision-making is that they often overemphasise the positives about a choice and down play or ignore the negatives.

Sadly the reality is that the chances of dying on this journey of transformation increases around 300-400% and much of that tragic loss of life stems from poor decision-making.

Some of the developmental drivers of adolescence are partly to blame for the reluctance of our emerging adults-to-be to listen to our wonderful, wise guidance. And let’s be honest many of us made appalling choices during our adolescence that we would really like our own beloved children to avoid repeating!

The three main developmental drivers that impact this dilemma the most are the yearning for more autonomy and freedom, the search for identity and the need to belong more strongly with their own age group – their friends and peers.

This means they are automatically more resistant to being told what to do, how to do it and when to do it especially around their social lives, and they take far more heed of what their friends say and think than what their parents and say.

Best-Ever Tips for Parents:

  • Don’t take their sometimes irrational emotional outbursts personally!
  • Know that your adolescents know how to wind you up rather than use rational logic especially when arguing. So when asked ‘Can I go to the party with 200 teens in a paddock/oval?’ – pause and say ‘I will chat to dad or give it some thought and get back to you after dinner.’ Then about 9pm knock quietly on their door, pause, please pause and open the door a little and say gently, ‘Love, the answer to the question about the party – the answer is no.’ Quietly close the door and leave.
  • ‘You know your friends are always welcome here’– offer to give them rides, pick them up and feed them if hungry….the friends will bat for you when things go bad with your own teen.
  • Offer to collect as many friends as you can in the car after sport or social events and drive the longest way possible to deliver them because they forget you are in the car and chat away about all sorts of stuff they would never tell you about!
  • Exams can be really a difficult time so ask: ‘Do you reckon any of your friends are worried about failing and struggling with stress and anxiety around the exams?’ This helps to normalise situational stress.
  • If a teen has decided to drop a subject, leave school or change from a university pathway to a vocational course – listen and then say – ‘how about we give it a few weeks (or until Easter) and then we can sit down and work out what you can do’. So often they make these noises when they are frightened they will fail and need time to adjust. Listen and avoid dismissing them. And consider carefully if the choice might be right for them.
  • If your teen is about to make a poor choice – going to say something unwise to someone that is possibly hurtful, wants to get a piercing, get a Mohawk – bite your lip and suggest they sleep on it. Sometimes their inner wise counsel – yes it’s there deep down – can soften or change a decision.
  • Back to the party request that worries you for lots of reasons – suggest an alternative. ‘I am a bit uncomfortable about this party – how about you choose 10 friends and have a sleep over with Netflix and pizzas here?’
  • Another approach to the party question – ‘You know most social gatherings of teens work out well – however sometimes things can go bad. So can I just check how you might handle some situations that may happen? What would you do if:
    • Some older gate crashers arrive who start fighting and trashing the place?
    • You are offered free pills or tablets that you are told are fun and safe?
    • Someone passes out – are they asleep or in an alcoholic coma?
    • Someone who is very drunk wants to drive or do burn outs?
    • You can’t find one of your friends and that is out of character for them.
    • There is no phone reception at all.
    • Someone gets hurt badly when they fall.
    • You suddenly feel unsafe. You may be surprised that they have much of this worked out and when you offer a suggestion they often accept it because you have heard them first.
  • Many teens have a sense of an unsafe situation/events and so give them some safe ways of saying no or getting collected that does not mean they lose face or status. The X Plan is great! If a teen is wanting to leave a situation, they simply send an X in a text to a parent or older safe person and this is a signal for the parent to ring and say there has been a family emergency and you will be collected soon. Or blame mum – ‘Oh I wish I could come BUT no way will my mum let me go – she is such a bag!’ One important thing to note with The X Plan is when you collect them there are no questions and no need to explain. If they volunteer information we accept it calmly and without judgement.
  • When they show you the ear/eye piercing or bring home an unusual looking friend or a lousy report – pause and say ‘Now that’s interesting…’ If you over react they may see that as a challenge to their growing autonomy and independence and next week it will be another ear piercing or the fight will erupt!
  • Sometimes when they are telling you of their plans and you know it is a poor choice – ask gently ‘Can I give some feedback?’ If they say no – just say ‘OK but can you please sleep on this before you finally decide?
  • Sometimes they will tell you their plans – and you may be a bit worried – ask what their plan B is if their original plan does not work out. I have known teens who have walked 35 kilometres when their ride left without them and they were out of mobile range?
  • Model how to calm yourself down – take the dog for a walk, go have a bath or just tell them you will chat about this issue tomorrow after you have had time to calm down and think things through.
  • When they are stressing out – and there are so many things that genuinely stress out our teens and this is why there is so much more self-harm, mental illness and nastiness – allow them to vent and express their big, ugly often unreasonable feelings. Then pause – offer them a gesture of care – a milo, cup of tea, a hug, a tissue and say ‘That really sucks – tell me how I can support you?’
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Make sure your teens are aware too that there is lots of help out there if they need someone to listen to them, or they need reassurance. There are so many great online resources and support services so please make sure they know that these exist for them. Here’s a list of good websites/call centres for adolescents when they need help or advice.

Adolescence, especially under 18, is a time of incredibly intense emotions and feeling criticised, excluded, unacceptable, dumb, not good enough and unloved are valid reasons to feel awful – frightened, unwanted and out of control. Home needs to be a safe base where they can find refuge. These tips can help you better support your teens on this bumpy journey while respecting their need to grow in independence and freedom.

Having a few lighthouses – positive adult allies – is another winner in the mix that I cannot recommend strongly enough. Sometimes your unconditional and fierce love for your teen may have you saying, ‘Love I know it’s sometimes hard to talk to your parents about stuff – please know it’s OK to talk to a safe grown up – a good lighthouse – who you know cares about you.’ And then be that person for your teen’s friends.

This way we can ensure that every teen will know they are not alone and that they matter.