Most of the articles we write are directed toward parents with teens in treatment for a mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorder. We support parents with advice about all sorts of things, from how to support a teen with depression, to how to help a teen with anxiety manage their panic attacks, or how to find the best treatment center for a teen with an addiction disorder.
This article is different. Not only is it for all teens – even those who aren’t in treatment – but it’s also about things you, as a teen, can do to improve home life, starting with how you can improve communication with your parents.
Articles we’ve published recently for teens are mostly self-help type articles about navigating the treatment and recovery experience. For instance, teens can find practical advice in these two articles, which are how-to explainers:
Those are all about you, the teen.
This one is about your parents.
Or rather, it’s about things you can do to help them. We had the idea for this piece while writing an article for National Parents’ Day, which was July 24th.
Did you know that the 4th Sunday of July is always National Parents’ Day?
If you didn’t you do now.
That article was all about how we can recognize, support, and honor parents of teens, particularly parents who have a teenager diagnosed with a mental health disorder. This article is about the same thing, really, but it’s geared toward teens – that’s you – whether you’re in treatment or not. It’s about the one thing we think can help any relationship thrive: communication. In this case, it’s about how you can communicate better with your parents.
It’s Not Too Late
Let’s be honest.
Some families need to work on their communication.
It’s not just the teens. Parents need work too, especially if they grew up in a family that didn’t have clear and open lines of communication. You may have a grandfather who’s hilarious, outgoing, and full of great stories. What you might not know is that same man may have thought that as a father, he was supposed to be the strong, silent type.
Now do you see why your dad might not be so great at communicating with you?
What we’re really saying here is that no matter what has come before, it’s never too late to open those lines of communication back up, and work on keeping them open. This is true for teens in treatment, and it’s true for any teen, anywhere. You can improve your life in the short-term by improving your relationship with your parent, parents, grandparents, or legal guardians, and you can lay the foundation for long-term, sustainable relationship moving forward.
With these seven tips.
Teens: Seven Tips to Improve Communication with Your Parents
1. Actually Talk
This is a big one. It means dropping any act based on norms perpetuated by mass media and pop culture. You know the act we mean: the teens are surly with parents at all times act. It means engaging in real conversations with your parents.
We’re not talking about the big things. We’re talking about everyday stuff.
When your parents ask you a question, you can improve communication by answering with more than one word. Yeah, fine, okay, no, yes, maybe, whaaaaat? are all valid answers to questions sometimes.
But if you want to improve communication, you can step up and offer what’s called free information. For instance, in addition to answering “Fine” when your parental unit asks how school went, try adding an anecdote about the day. Something that happened in class, something that happened at lunch – anything. That will get the ball rolling. Take the time to chat with your parents about the small things, and you create a template for how to communicate about the big things.
2. Ask Them About Their Day
This one is simple, and can help you with the first point. They ask you about how school went, or how debate team went, or what happened during football practice, and once you answer – with some free information – you ask them about their day. If they work, ask about work. If they’re a stay-home parent, ask them about how the day on the home front went. Ask them about your younger siblings, if you have them. And if you know they’ve been working on a project around the house, ask about that. Trust us on this one. If you make the effort to make some small talk that’s about them, it won’t be small, in their minds. It’ll be a big deal, and they’ll appreciate it.
3. Find Out More About Them
Can you see a theme, here? Direct some of your energy their way in a way that’s about them, and there’s a likelihood your relationship with them will improve.
But we digress: this is a practical tip.
This tip advises you to learn things about your parents you don’t know. This will do two things. It will make them more real to you – humanize them, as it were – and it will give you something to talk about when you follow the first two tips on this list.
The way to do this is to ask the people who’d know. Start with their spouse or partner, who might or might not be you parent or biological parent. Next, ask any aunts or uncles who might be around. Or if they’re not in the same town, take the initiative and call them, email them, or text them. If you’re don’t know how to start, ask open-ended questions like “Do you have any stories about [mom/dad] when they were young?” or “Tell me what [mom/dad] was like when they were [my age, in college, etc.]. If your grandparents are around, ask them the same questions. You should trust us on this one, too: your parents’ sisters, brothers, and parents will most likely jump at the chance to tell the most embarrassing stories about your parents they can think of. Get ready: what you learn could be hilarious.
4. Do the Small Things
A little bit of help goes a long, long way. Warning: this article is about to start sounding a little parentish. But you need to hear some of these things from an outside source. When we say do the small things, we mean things like helping clear the dinner table, helping put away groceries, bringing plates and glasses back to the kitchen from your room, and not leaving personal belongings around the house.
You can also change it up, surprise them, and look out for them by, for instance, reminding them to drink plenty of water, remind them to get outside and get some exercise, or asking them what’s up with their new hobby. Flip the script and see what happens.
Those are little things, all of them. But we promise, if you do those things – and practice proactive, positive communication while you do – then you’ll build up lots of good will, which can only make things between you and your parents better.
5. Do the Big Things
Now we’re officially parentish. We’ve got two categories of big things: one is for your life, and the other is for family life. Let’s start with the for your life category. What we mean here is the basic stuff you hear from adults all the time. Here’s the list:
- Show up for school and do your best
- Be respectful to your teachers, your peers, and anyone you meet at all times
- Follow through on your commitments to others:
- If you’re on a team, show up to practice and do your best
- If you have a job, show up and do your best
- When your friends need help, help them
- Avoid alcohol, drugs, and tobacco
- Avoid behavior you know is dangerous or reckless. Yes, we know your prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. However, we also know you’re smart enough to know what we mean.
Moving on to the next category, family life, make sure you:
- Do your big chores around the house, like cleaning your room, mowing the lawn, making dinner, or doing the dishes on your night. Whatever you’re supposed to do, do it.
- Help with grandparents or younger siblings if they live with you
- Answer any and all texts ASAP
- Be home on time for curfew
The gist of all this is personal responsibility. In practical terms, that means you do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. We know you’re not perfect. You’ll genuinely forget things. You may get distracted and do things late. You’ll do some things totally wrong. And all that will be okay, because – based on tips 1-3 – you’ll be able to communicate about those things, clear up misunderstandings, and do better next time. That’s one of the primary reasons you need to practice talking to your parents about the little things, because it will help when you need to talk about the big things.
6. Tell Them You Love Them
Like this: “I love you.”
If you say that and hug them, well – you win.
7. Talk to Them About the Big Things
We said it before: you need to talk about the small things so you can talk about the big things. When we say big, we don’t mean bad, but sometimes the big talks you have to have with your parents are about things that might be considered bad.
Hold that thought – we’ll get right back to it.
Back to the small talk idea: you practice small talk to create a template for big talks. You need to be able to have big talks because that’s how relationships grow, deepen, and improve.
The most important thing to remember when talking about big things is to be open, honest, and direct.
If it’s a big deal to you, then you need to be one hundred percent honest. If it’s a big deal to them, you also need to be one hundred percent honest.
Because one key to communication is understanding. When you understand what’s going on with someone – i.e. what they’re really thinking and feeling – then you can empathize with them. If you can empathize with them, you’ll probably be able to think, feel, and act from a positive, proactive place. When there’s a misunderstanding, you can clear it up by talking it through. Both of you can act and react based on truth. We know this is getting sappy, but we’re talking about a relationship based on love, where you each see each other for who you really are – and that requires the truth.
Now, back to the big talks that might be considered bad. If you make a mistake – a big one, you name it – you’re probably afraid of how your parent, parents, or legal guardian will react when they find out. The best thing to do is to gather your courage and be open, honest, and direct. Whatever mistake you think you made, own it one hundred percent. Tell them your side. Be brave, be who you are, and we bet you’ll be surprised: what you thought was really bad might not be that bad, after all.
Stepping Into Adolescence and Adulthood
As we mention at the outset, this article is for both teens who are in treatment and teens who aren’t in treatment. The overall theme is accountability. That’s as true for teens who are in treatment as it is for teens who aren’t. If you’re in treatment, you hear it from your therapists and counselors: you need to own your part of any relationship. That perspective applies to home life as well as recovery, and it’s true for the small things and the big things related to communication. When your parents ask how your day was, you can step up and participate in the conversation. That’s your part of the relationship, in that moment.
You practice accountability on the small things so you can apply it to the big things. That helps you become a real adolescent, rather than a schoolchild, and when the time comes, helps you transform into an adult.
Right now, it can help you improve communication with your parent, parents, or legal guardian, which can, in turn, help to improve your relationship with them. And guess what? Working on your primary relationships is a sign that you’re learning and growing, which is exactly what teenagers are supposed to be doing.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.