Anyone parenting a teen has a list of dreaded words in the back of our minds that we never want to hear…
- “I’m pregnant.”
- “Last night. What? I can’t remember.”
- “I’m in the principal’s office and need you to come and get me.”
- “I just had to send a quick text…that car hit me!”
Sometimes it feels like just when you think you’ve got this parenting thing down: “Boom!” You hit a roadblock. It might even be an actual roadblock – like the kind involving texting, driving, and not watching where you are going… (despite your best and continual efforts to talk with your teen about the very obvious dangers involved in a cell phone/car combo). As a mother who survived parenting a teen (not once, but twice!) and now has two pretty awesome young adults, I’m here to help you navigate through the teen years with confidence, poise and understanding.
The biggest thing to remember when you are frustrated with how your son or daughter is behaving is that they have no control over the changes happening in their bodies. They are riding a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Think about what it is like to go through menopause and middle age, multiply that by 100 and put yourself in an environment where all of your friends and co-workers are going through the same thing. Sounds horrible, right? This is what our teens are dealing with every day. While their bodies may look like a young adult on the outside, on the inside they still have some catching up to do. Unfortunately, this tornado of physical, cognitive, emotional and sexual changes can also trigger risky behaviors like binge drinking, unprotected sex, texting and driving—the list goes on.
Let’s be honest, parenting a teen is hard – and this is serious stuff.
In fact, the cause of death in 3 out of every 4 teens is due to their risky behaviors. These are deaths that could have been prevented if a parent was aware, if a healthcare provider was aware, and the teen had conversations with caring adults in ways that caused them to think differently about risks and then make safer decisions.
Rest assured, you don’t have to do this parenting thing without some help, guidance and maybe a glass of chamomile tea (or wine) every once in a while. As a nurse practitioner specializing in the teen years, a researcher, author, and a mom of two, I have counseled thousands of teens over the years on their risky behaviors. The best advice I have? Foster a strong relationship built on solid communication. Studies show that having a strong relationship with your teen is one of the biggest positive influences on their behaviors.
So, how do you talk to teens in a way that fosters a strong relationship, opens the line of communication and helps them make safer decisions? Here are 4 easy ways to get started with the conversations you want to have (and avoid the ones you don’t)! Keep these 4 simple tips for parenting a teen and building more effective, two-way communication in your memory bank:
1. Ask Permission
The key to having a genuine conversation with your teen when it comes to subjects like sex, alcohol, or texting and driving is to start by asking permission. A normal part of being a teen is their struggle for control. Asking permission gives them a sense of control over the discussion and a feeling of respect. When permission is asked and given, teens are more open to hearing what you are sharing with them. You could start with something like this: “I would like to talk with you about what happened at school. When is a good time today?”
2. Use Empathetic Statements
Empathy creates a safe and supportive environment between you and your teen. Saying something as simple as “You had a hard day at school today” makes a more productive start to a conversation than, “Stop complaining. When I was your age…”You may be thinking your teen has it easy (and they probably do) compared to your life, but remember for teens everything really is all about them and showing them empathy will help strengthen your relationship.
3. Ask Open-ended Questions
As easy it is to lecture, it doesn’t lead to a productive and honest two-way discussion. Open-ended questions allow teens to think through risky behaviors and possible alternatives to those behaviors. They are not easily answered with a yes or no response. If you’d like to have a conversation with your teen about drinking alcohol, you could say, “How will you handle being offered alcohol at the party?” instead of “Are you planning on drinking at the party?”
When your teen responds to an open-ended question, don’t interrupt or share personal stories. When you want to respond immediately, take a slow, deep breath instead. A few seconds of silence gives teens a chance to think about what they are saying and continue their thought. Your role is to facilitate discussions, helping to lead them toward positive behaviors.
Jennifer Salerno is author of Teen Speak, a how-to guide for real talks with teens about sex, drugs, and other risky behaviors, and founder and president of Possibilities for Change.
Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash