Better ways to talk to your teen

How’s the communication with your teen been lately? If you’re anything like the many families Bec Coldicutt of Rebel Starseeds works with, it probably has its ups and downs. Here, Bec shares some insights for better parent-teen chat.

Communication between parents and their children is what I spend most of my time talking through with my clients; helping them reset and re-engage in a positive way, with the aim of helping to restore respect and understanding to their conversations.

If this is something you’re currently struggling with, hopefully some of the ideas below will be of help!

Communicating as parent

Connection, feeling heard and validation are foundations for kids when communicating with loved ones. Adolescence brings heightened emotions, a searing need for connection to community (hence the desperate need to fit in, hang with friends), and a spike in self-awareness which can often feel uncomfortable and painful. Family can either be a safe place that supports and nurtures the child as they navigate these big changes, or it can aggravate or throw areas of insecurity into sharp relief. Some of the typical reactive behaviour can be defensive, avoidant, aggressive, or emotional. This makes it super-hard to get anything out of them, especially cooperation.

I hear a lot of the following from teens about their parents:
● They don’t listen to me
● Their rules make no sense, which makes me mad
● They don’t understand how I feel / the situation
● They make me feel sad when they make a comment about…

As a parent, this can be infuriating or confusing, as you’re trying your best, yet hitting a brick wall. If this is happening in your home, I’ve got a few suggestions for you to try out.

reset the conversation

Coming back to those three foundations – connection, feeling heard, and validation, consider the following suggestions for improved communication:

1. Avoid shaming

Shaming is never productive, as it speaks to the core of the person, rather than to their behaviour. Address the behaviour rather than name -calling. One says ‘you are a bad person’; the other says ‘you did a bad thing’. We certainly don’t want to crush our kids and make them feel like they are bad people! You may be familiar with Brené Brown’s large body of work around this topic, which I highly recommend if you want to do a deep dive into this.

2. Choose an appropriate time to talk

Super simple, but also really helpful! Driving in the car (thereby eliminating any intense eye contact) is a great option for lots of people. Trying to talk in high energy or stressful situations is not a great option for anyone (think rushing out the door, in reaction to something they’ve just said or done). Sometimes it’s better to calmly and neutrally just say, “we’ll chat about this later”. It allows time for both to process, rather than reacting and making things worse. If things are kicking off in front of peers or even siblings, choosing a more appropriate time to talk elsewhere can also help to avoid a shaming scenario.

3. Actively listen and reflect back

It might sound a bit therapist-y, but listening without interruption, and reflecting back what you’ve heard your child say can be so powerful. Your child will feel heard, and it’s likely this process will help them to unpack and understand all the emotions that are swirling for them and causing the challenging behaviour. Yes, this can be hard! Especially if they are having a go at you. But by reflecting it back, sometimes you can take the heat out of it, and get to the bottom of the issue. If your kids are open to it, this can be a great tool to teach them, too. Search ‘active listening’ online to learn more about it.

4. Ask questions, rather than demanding answers

Stay curious and open to their thoughts and ideas. Think like a teacher trying to understand their student. Where did that opinion come from? Why do you feel that way? What experiences have led you to that conclusion? What’s important to you right now? How would you like this to be resolved? Or maybe the best: How can I help you/what do you need right now? You never know, you might learn something fascinating or vitally important about your child and their world.

5. Validate

Whilst you might not agree with your child (and nor do you need to), validating what they are saying helps them to feel heard and understood. A simple ‘that must be really challenging for you right now’ is powerful. They don’t need you to rush in and solve everything for them, or tell them their self-perception is utterly ridiculous; it is their reality, and your job is to help them move through whatever is coming up for them, whether you agree or not. Once they’ve been heard, they may be more open to hearing a different perspective, but if you argue back, that becomes a lot less likely.

6. Lose the criticism

Kids are highly vulnerable to criticism, especially in teen years where it easily punctures their self-esteem and sense of self worth. So many kids I work with mention what I assume to be off the cuff comments from parents that have deeply hurt them, and have hit them right in their insecurities (think intelligence, body image, comparison with siblings/peers, ability with sport… I could go on). They don’t need more criticism in their lives; they are likely comparing themselves on an hourly basis to unattainable standards and experiencing hyper critical self-talk! Lose the criticism. Instead, make sure you tell them what you think is amazing about them, and often!

Helping kids communicate positively

It’s important to acknowledge that this is a two way thing. Kids need support in learning how to communicate well, and with respect. As a parent, not only can you model this for them using the suggestions above, but it is absolutely appropriate to point out when behaviour is disrespectful, and help them to reframe what is acceptable in your home. Consistency is important from all parents and guardians in the child’s life to help them learn these boundaries and expectations. Just as a side note, I’d love you to know that it is normal and healthy for teens to push back on their parents; this is hardwired in their development to help them learn all about independence so they can navigate the world on their own! Which is a good thing!

Just as important, is helping your child nurture their own voice and knowing that their opinion matters. Asking questions and helping them feel heard is a great way to do this, as is including them (as appropriate) in family decisions and discussions that will affect their future. Help your kids become empowered and feel worthy of inclusion.

Communicating is fundamental to any good relationship, and just like anything worth learning, sometimes it’s going to be hard work. Adolescence certainly flips the script and can make things so much harder when not so long ago it was sublimely easy! If you recognise yourself in some of the not-so-ideal communication moments (don’t we all at some point?), high fives to you, because awareness is the best place to start and now you have a few little tools to help make life easier next time. New habits can take a while to form, so persevere and adopt the ‘parent as mentor’ approach to let your child know you’re providing a safe space for them to express themselves. Building this trust is key, and hopefully it will be just the thing to unlock better conversations in your home, soon enough.

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