How to Rebuild and Restore Lines of Communication With Your Teen
Parent-teen communication can be difficult.
The changes of adolescence drive teens to seek new identities, separate and distinct from those they developed at home and at school before puberty. As they move through the stages of adolescence, their psychological and emotional needs transform at a dizzying pace. They seek new ways to behave in the world, new ways to think the world, and new ways to talk about what they feel and perceive as they mature physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
For a clear explanation of the different stages teens go through during adolescence, please read our article “Understanding Adolescent Development.”
The changes they go through – and mostly the drive toward differentiation – can make talking to your teen challenging at the best of times. When you go through rough patches in your relationship, have arguments that turn into shouting matches, and say things you don’t mean and know you shouldn’t have – but don’t realize until later – then having a genuine conversation with your teenager can go from challenging to almost impossible.
That’s okay, though, because this whole time you’ve been doing a job that’s close to impossible anyway. Some people would say parenting teens is all about doing what’s close to impossible – and doing it with no preparation, no handbook, and no do-overs.
And besides – close to impossible is not impossible.
Which means you can do it.
Which also means that you can rediscover how to talk to your teen even if your relationship feels broken and the lines of communication feel hopelessly muddled and filled with subtext, misunderstanding, and unresolved issues from last week or last year.
We know you can do it for one reason: your teenager wants to be seen, heard, and understood. Not just by anyone.
They want to be seen, heard, and understood by you.
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Parent-Teen Communication: What They Need From You
We’ll cut to the chase.
With few exceptions, responsibility for restoring the lines of communication lies with you, the parent.
Because you’re the adult. You survived the stages of adolescent development we describe in the article we link to above – reading that article can help you in any parenting situation – and you made it to adulthood intact, functioning, and with the wherewithal to start a family.
You’re the adult, and you can also learn specific facts about your teen and practical techniques to facilitate communication. It’s unlikely your teen will do that, on their end, unless they’ve been in treatment or spent time with a therapist in recent years.
Which some teens have.
But if your teen hasn’t, we have two quick things we want to share with you right away, and a how-to list to share later in this article.
First, the two quick things.
We found them in an interesting article published this year in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. The study, called “Parental Listening and When Adolescents Self-Disclose” presents the results of an experiment that analyzed what types of listening encourage teens to tell – a.k.a self-disclose – important things to their parents. The researchers determined that on a personal, psychological, and emotional level, two fundamental things encourage teens to open up and talk about difficult topics:
- They need to feel autonomous and independent. When they feel these things, they have the confidence to express themselves honestly, and the likelihood they’ll share openly with you increases.
- They need to feel relatable. As in “that meme is totally relatable.” They need to feel connected, close, and understood, which also increases the likelihood they’ll share openly with you.
And do you know what the researchers found makes them feel autonomous, independent, and relatable?
The way you listen.
How to Repair and Restore Communication With Your Teen
Active, engaged listening is one key element in getting your teen to talk to you when there’s rough water under the bridge. We’ll get to that in our list, which is forthcoming. Another is having the perspective to understand what we mean when we say you’re the adult. We mean that on every level. You have the experience to know what your teen is going through, you have the maturity to set aside your pride and move forward without holding a grudge, and most importantly, you actually have the neurons in your brain that allow you to manage your emotions and make rational decisions about how, when, and about what you will communicate.
We say that last piece about your brain because one thing that separates teens from adults is the fact in humans, the prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until the early 20s. Therefore, in a way, parenting teens involves you acting as their external prefrontal cortex. In this context, that’s important, because in the absence of a healthy dose of legitimate and rational adulting – which they’re physiologically incapable of, neurodevelopmentally speaking – it’s unlikely that the lines of communication between you and your teen will repair themselves.
With all that in mind, we present the following list.
How To Get Your Teen to Talk When You’ve Burned Bridges
1. Own Your Part in the Communication Breakdown
This is a huge deal for teens. It’s huge for all kids, but for teens, their newfound ability to recognize justice and equality is an important part of how they see the world. It’s also related to how they want to be treated, which is with respect. To restart communication with your teen, we recommend you do an honest and unflinching self-inventory about all the previous communication in your relationship. If you made mistakes, if you said things you didn’t mean, if you said things you know you shouldn’t have – own it all.
Every last bit.
If you can identify when you were wrong, admit it. Then apologize. Apologize with a true, unqualified apology. Instead of “I’m sorry I said ‘If you walk out that door don’t come back!’ but I was mad and I thought you needed some tough love” try stopping that sentence before the but. Admitting you were wrong and apologizing does not undermine your authority as a parent, but rather, it humanizes you to your teenager, and strengthens your relationship with them.
2. Start Small
While one bad argument may have sealed the deal, it probably took months or years for you and your teen to get off-track, communication-wise. That means you probably won’t get it all back in one day or in one conversation, but you have to start somewhere. To that end, look for points of contact. Find things you know they love and you know a little something about. Ask simple questions and let them talk. You have an agenda here, which is to restore communication. First, though, you have to get your teen talking. In the beginning, just listen – and resist the urge to jump in and comment or editorialize. Let them ramble. Let them find their voice again, in relationship to you, so they can feel free to express themselves. This brings us to our next point.
3. Active, Engaged Listening
Most people fall short with regard to active listening because they misunderstand the context. In an active listening situation, you’re not in a debate. That’s the mistake. In a debate, you listen in order to rebut. That means that while the other person talks, you plan your response. If you’re debating opposite sides of an issue, you plan your response to support your side, and counter theirs. This is not that type of situation. In this situation, your goal is to get your teen to talk. First about whatever they want to talk about, and down the line, about things that are important to them. To get to that next step, though, you need to do the following things while you listen:
- Make eye contact.
- Lean forward with an inclined head.
- Nod your head affirmatively, often.
- Use extra-verbals, like “Ahhh” “Oh!” and “Hmmmm.”
- Say things like “Thank you for sharing that. That’s a really interesting perspective.”
That last bullet item brings us to our next point.
4. Affirm, Validate, and Praise
We mentioned above that teens want to be seen, heard, and understood by their parents. The way you make sure they know you see, feel, and understand them is by saying so, out loud. We’ve all watched movies where the stoic parent takes the entire two hours – sometimes spanning twenty years of a relationship – to finally say something like “I’ve always been proud of you.” Trust us: you don’t want to live out that movie. When your teen tells you something that’s important to them, we suggest you be free with praise and effusive with your validation. Here are some commonly accepted ways to express appreciation and validation:
- Saying supportive words
- Spending quality time
- Doing kind things
- Physical touch, i.e. hugs, high fives, and pats on the back
When your teen shares things with you, we suggest you find your way to those four actions in a way that feels honest and genuine to you. When you do that, your teen will feel your sincerity, hear your words, and be more likely to share more in the future.
5. Share of Yourself
We’re tempted to say that this step comes after steps 1-4, but you can use this judiciously in the early stages of recalibrating your communication with your teen – with the operative word being judicious. You want to avoid making it about you, but after a certain point – meaning when you and your teen are communicating well – your teen wants to hear about you. Think back to your experience as a teen or young adult and share your successes, failures, high points, low points, and everything in between.
Keep it appropriate, of course. But do share yourself and your life story with your teen. Try to avoid the stock stories you tell at family gatherings, and instead mine your memory for stories that are relatable in both big and small ways. You can do all this, as we mentioned above, without undermining your role as parent and authority figure. The idea is to humanize yourself in the eyes of your teen. When they realize you’ve had experiences that are similar to theirs, they’ll see you in a new way. It’s likely that new way will help them open up to you and share what’s important to them – and that’s the entire goal.
Practice, Commitment, and Follow-Through
This will take time, energy, and patience. If you follow the steps above, keep in mind that your teen may need a period to adjust to and trust this new approach from you. That’s okay. You can wait for them. It’s essential to keep going once you start, though. Don’t let a few failed attempts at the beginning derail you. It’s okay to sit in awkwardness at the beginning, because it will lead to genuine connection later on. Work your way through any things from the past you want to make right, listen through the small-talk about their interests, practice your active and engaged listening, learn how to praise and validate them in a way that makes them feel empowered and seen, and finally, learn how to share honestly, of yourself, with them.
This may all come easily to you and your teen, and it may not. Each parent-teen dynamic is different. We can promise one thing, though: it will be well worth the effort.
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Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.