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Tips for Talking to Teens

It happens to every parent. One day you turn around and your child has turned into a teenager. Things become complicated, and you start to wonder:

How do you really protect a teen from hurt, pain, self-doubt or risky behavior?

The best place to start is talking to them — even when the topic is awkward for you, and even when it seems like they aren’t listening.

“It’s important for parents to remember that entering adolescence is like arriving in a foreign country without a map,” says Dr. Katie Baker, who heads up Health Chat, a program dedicated to helping moms talk to their teen daughters. “Teens are going through rapid physical changes and engage in a lot of short-term thinking — the part of their brain that connects consequences to risky behavior is not fully developed yet.”

Whatever the topic — drinking, bullying, dating, texting while driving — Dr. Baker says parents can get their teens talking if they follow four simple guidelines.

1. Choose your time

Approach your teen when they are relaxed and have time to talk. While you may see the ride to school as a perfect setting for a chat about the perils of texting while driving, your son or daughter is mentally preparing for the day ahead of them. Wait for that point in the day when school is over and homework and chores are done. You’ll have a far more receptive ear.

2. Ask open-ended questions

Start by asking for their take on a subject to avoid lecturing. “I’m surprised to see kids vaping outside the school — is that a big thing now? Is it safer than smoking?” If you get your teen talking naturally, their attitude on the topic is more likely to come through. Let them know that you are on their side, and compliment them on their thoughts when appropriate.

3. Opt for honesty

You were a teenager once. You faced many of the same temptations and pressures to fit in, and probably did something you sincerely hope your child does not do. Consider telling them about your experience. You don’t have to reveal every detail, but showing that empathy with their situation can open the door to a good discussion. 

4. Know the facts

You are not a teenager now.

Your child faces a different set of situations that you never experienced.

Learn more about them. Suppose you discover that your child and their friends share ADHD medications when they are studying for a big test. He argues that it’s fine because these pills came from a doctor, not a drug dealer. Be ready with facts. Present them calmly. Make it clear that you are concerned for their safety and that is why they need to understand the issue better.

It will be hard, but you’ll get through it

Parenting a teenager is not easy. Conflict and disagreement is a natural part of the relationship, even though it hurts. Sometimes your child will keep secrets from you and sometimes you will feel helpless as you watch them struggle.

Annie Tennyson, a mom in Stanford, Tenn., went through a few years like that with her daughter, and it pained her greatly. It was a tough time, but they got through it. Now, she and her 16-year-old can talk about anything, and she’s watching her girl grow into a strong woman.

“Over time it got less and less awkward,” Tennyson says. “Now we’ll talk about drugs, politics, race, sex. I have to bite my tongue a lot. And I had to realize she is not mine — I guide her, teach her, but she doesn’t belong to me. My goal is to help her find her own way.”

For more tips on talking to your teen, click here.

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson, a writer and editor originally from New York, moved to Nashville more than 25 years ago and considers herself more Tennessean than Yankee these days. She has written about health care and wellness for a variety of publications.

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