Ministry of Education, Guyana

The importance of communicating with teenagers

The key to building a postive relationship and sorting out any communication difficulties with your teenager is to keep the channels of communication open. We tend to consider the importance of big talks about significant topics with teens, but the ability to connect when it really matters is often based on the ability to connect when it doesn't. The way you relate to them in day-to-day life will make it easier - or harder - to sort out the key issues.

We can get locked into unhelpful ways of communicating - bickering, nagging, criticising - that once we're in are hard to avoid. Your teenager may still need your guidance and the boundaries that you draw and hold, but you may have to get tactical to get this across. How you assert your authority may need to be different when dealing with an authority-averse teen rather than an automatically respectful child.
Your teenager still needs to know you are interested but watchful, that you care and are on their side, even if you don't always agree with them. You need to have the skill and the emotional resilience to go on offering help, even in the face of indifference and opposition.

Improving your communication skills

You can reduce the amount of indifference and opposition from your teenager if you improve your skills. Teenagers often behave in ways which make it difficult for us to give them what they need most - love and acceptance. You can't change your teenager, but you can change what you do - and how you behave differently, it often results in the other person matching you and altering their behaviour themselves.
How can you keep the communication open?
If you want to keep lines of communication open with your teenager, what should you be doing? It can help if you:
look for opportunities to talk off-message

  • use 'I' messages
  • use open questions
  • share something of yourself
  • treat the young person as an equal
  • practise what you preach
  • listen without judgement or criticism
  • appreciate them for their positive qualities
  • give unconditional love but hold strong boundaries over behaviour
  • give frequent 'strokes'
  • include the young person in family activities but give them the choice to opt out
  • understand and take action only when asked for help

Talk off-message

Often as a parent you're so aware of what you see as the important issues you want to discuss with your teenager - unsuitable friends, doing homework, playing loud music - that you forget to simply pass the time with them. If your teenager knows that every conversation with you means a lecture on something, they're going to avoid them. Some surveys show that the majority of exchanges between parents and their children entirely involve complaints and rebukes. Some teens say the only time their parents talk to them is to tell them off. But if they're used to chatting to you about fun stuff, inconsequential stuff, things they're interested in and doing, they'll stop and tune in and be relaxed with you. Then, when you do want to discuss something important or ask them to do something differently, they're likely to listen.

Use 'I' messages

If there is an issue you're concerned about, it isn't always effective to broach it with a 'you' message: 'you left the kitchen in a mess'. Instead try, 'I was upset this morning to find the kitchen in a mess because I had to tidy it up before I could make breakfast. Next time, please clear up after yourself. Thanks.'

Use open questions

Using open questions is another vital tool in making communicating with teenagers easier. A closed question stops communication rather than starts it, questions you can answer with a yes or no, such as 'are you going out?, 'do you have homework?' Closed questions only need a short answer and don't give the opportunity to say any more. Closed questions can suggest or even tell the person what you want them to hear. 'Did you have a good time at school today?' implies that you expect them to have enjoyed school. When we use closed questions as a way of making a criticism - about their appearance, behaviour, attitude - it's quite clear the question isn't to be answered, but swallowed. And it's often a quick step to an argument.
Instead, try an opener instead. An opener carries with it a different messages, one that says, 'Tell me more, I'm interested and listening.' Some examples of open questions are, 'Tell me about your day', 'You seem fed up/happy, tell me about it.'

Practise what you preach

One way to lose your teenager's trust or belief is to tell them to do one thing while breaking the rules yourself. Lectures on alcohol and drugs may fall on deaf ears if you drink and partake, even if you think it's different. They may reject your advice on the grounds that you do it too. They may also decide that since you ignore your own rules on one issues that they can ignore what you say about other things too. Modelling good behaviour to them will always be more effective than preaching it.

Listening without judgement or criticism

As parents we feel that we have to guide, instruct and inform to do our job properly. Seeing parenting as a job where you are in charge gives you a vested interest in feeling you can solve any difficulties experienced by your teenager. You tend to think their inexperience is the same as them not being competent or capable. Standing by and letting them find their own solutions to problems may leave you feeling anxious and angry. It may be a source of pride that you know best and make decisions for them which means you get upset and angry when they complain or resist your help or advice.
What you need to do is give them the same support that you would a friend - simply listen without passing comment, without making judgements or offering criticism. Sometimes you need to give your teenager exactly the respect and behaviour you'd give a friend. Judging, blaming, criticising and labelling can destroy self-esteem and cause distance between you and your teenager. It can increase conflict and make them unwilling to cooperate.

Appreciate your teenager for their positive qualities

We can all find things we dislike about our teenagers: their messy rooms, treating the house like a hotel and they spend too much time on the phone or their computer. But if that's all you see, you may find it hard to get on. What helps is to make the positive effort to see what you like about them: their enthusiasm and liveliness, their kindness and concern, their sense of humour. Look for the positives and remind yourself of these every time you're tempted to be angry or upset with them over something you feel they've done or not done.


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