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How to Talk to a Teenager (and Know That They're Listening)

If you've got a child between the ages of 13 and 19 and feel that having a two-way conversation with this teenager is often painful, and often impossible, keep reading. There are ways to break through what can seem like an insurmountable communication gap. And if you're thinking about giving up, don't.

"Studies resoundingly show that a lack of parental support and guidance is one of the primary causes for at-risk behavior such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs and having unprotected sex," says Dr. Michael Anastasi, a family counselor from La Verne, Calif. "While there is certainly a balance to be struck, it's absolutely imperative that parents go through the struggle of keeping in touch with their teens and revising their role as caregivers."

Even teens who say they want to be left along need their parents attention.

Keep in mind that during the teen years, your child is developing his or her own sense of identity. Teens may try to distance themselves from their parents to do this, and the way you react can make all the difference in having a healthy or destructive relationship.

Ask Questions, and be "Askable" Yourself

According to Ingrid Sanden, spokeswoman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the single most important thing a parent can do to stay in touch with their teen is to be "askable."

"Talking early and often with kids about things like relationships, sex and drugs may be hard, but children and teenagers consistently say they would rather hear about sex from their parents than from their friends or the media," Sanden says.

As a parent, you should strive to ask your teen open-ended questions. These are good for two reasons: 1. They can't be answered with a yes or no, which your teen may be tempted to use otherwise 2. They show that you are really interested in finding out what your teen has to say.

Daniel F. Perkins, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of family, youth and community sciences at the University of Florida, says that if you ask closed-ended questions, you limit the range of responses and suggest that you already know what is going to be said.

Spend Time With Your Teen

Even though it may seem that the last thing your teenager wants is to spend time with you, most teenagers look forward to time spent one-on-one with their parents -- particularly if you let your teen decide what you do.

The biggest factor in raising a successful teen is parent involvement.

"Teens today need more quality as well as quantity time," says Dr. Larry Jenson, Ph.D., who has taught parenting development courses and workshops for more than 34 years. "Many experts document this need but it seems that many believe that since teens are more self sufficient they require less maintenance, supervision or monitoring. Not so. In fact the best predictor of positive outcomes for teens raised in high risk neighborhoods is maternal supervision."

Simply asking your teen to go out to a movie or a special dinner can strengthen your relationship and give you time to talk, without feeling like talking is forced. Having family dinners at least a few times a week is another great way to spend time together--but make sure that you talk during the dinner (not watch TV, etc.).

Be Respectful, Not Judgmental

A teen, like anyone, wants to feel respected. And if you're too busy to talk to your teen while watching a TV program, or only show interest in their lives on the weekends when they go out, your teen will feel that you're not interested in them. Likewise, if you dole out advice or make judgments before you've heard what your teen has to say, they won't feel like they're able to open up.

This also extends to your tone of voice and body language. Make a real effort to listen to your teen in the respectful, engaged way you'd want to be listened to.

"You need to work hard to be nonjudgmental. Certainly, as a parent, you want to respond in an honest, helping and counseling manner, but maybe it would be better to wait or at least delay your response," says Dr. Jenson. "At least wait until they are finished communicating what they want to say. Then agree with all that is agreeable, but say something like, 'There are some things you said that are troubling to me,' 'I don't understand,' or 'Let me think about what you said,' and 'We will continue this conversation later.'"

Empathize With Your Teen

Showing your teen that you understand situations they are going through will make them more likely to open up to you in the future. To do this, Perkins says, " ... You must ignore your own, adult perception of the situation for the moment and accept your teen's feelings, thoughts, and ideas of the situation as yours."

Of course, this doesn't mean you have to agree with your teen, just that you accept their thoughts and opinions. Over time, each time you talk your conversations will get easier.

Lighten Up

It's imperative that you let your teen know you're a real person, that you, too, made and make mistakes, and that it's OK to laugh at yourself sometimes. Tell your teen about your own mishaps as a teenager, and use humor to lighten up situations that are unnecessarily tense.

Choosing your battles is also important, as pushing an unimportant issue can push your teen away, rather than bring them closer.

"One of the things I found is that often if I tried to push something too much, it became impossible. He shut down. Boys especially, but all teenagers today like to feel like they are in control," says single mother of three teenagers, personal coach and director for the Center for Successful Communities, Paula Dawidowicz.

Finally, if you're at your wits end and feel like your teen just won't open up, keep in mind these three tips from Dr. Jenson:

"If a parent listens first the teen will in turn be more likely to listen. Second, make yourself useful or needed. Parents have a lot to offer but teens need to know this. Third, use humor where ever possible and begin by making the conversations pleasant."

Recommended Reading

How to Most Effectively "Pick Your Battles"

Autism and Kids: The Untold Story of Why Autism has Become a Major Epidemic


Teenagers Today: Keeping Tabs on Your Teen

Teenagers Today: Are You Listening to Me?

Teenagers Today: Grunts, Snarls and Verbal Abuse

Active Listening: A Communication Tool

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