click to go to

Resource | Lessons Learned

How to Talk and Listen to Your Teen

It’s not new that substance use or experimentation happens during adolescence, but it’s now exacerbated by stress and mental health challenges caused by the pandemic.

While social restrictions and school closures made it harder for teens to hang out with friends, studies show teen binge drinking and marijuana use held steady during 2020. The annual Monitoring the Future report found young people who felt extreme stress during the pandemic were 2.4 times more likely to use a substance than those who felt slight stress. Even more troubling, an analysis of emergency response data found the rate of drug-related 911 calls for young people aged 20 and under increased by 43%.

As parents, we like to believe we have all the answers. But when talking to our teenagers, it is really the time when you want to have a conversation with them – and not at them. For that to happen, be ready to listen — and hear what they want to say.



Be Present:

  1. Listen Before You Talk: You can’t pretend to listen. Open the conversation but wait a bit before sharing your wisdom, experience or your opinion. Listening, not opining, is the most important thing we can do to connect with our teens. Just as you know when your teen is not listening to you, they know when you aren’t listening either. You can’t fake your way through this.
  2. Ask Open Ended Questions: Don’t just talk when there is an issue. Try your best to keep the conversation going about their feelings, their friends, their activities. Remember that questions that only solicit “yes” or “no” answers will be a dead end conversation.
  3. Be the Parent: As tempting as it may be to try to talk like one of your teen’s friends, don’t. They can see right through it.
  4. Try to Remember: You may well have had your own “moments” with your own parents as a teen. While our teens are living in a far more connected and social world than we did, the same issues still exist. Teens don’t want to be lectured any more than we did.
  5. Don’t multitask if you are trying to talk:  
    1. Put down your cell phone, computer, remote, or whatever else may distract you. If you are doing something else, the message you’ll send is that something else is more important than they are.   
    2. In the car together?  Turn off the all-news station or your podcast, so you can reconnect.  Many parents – and teens – find the best place to talk can be the car. It can be far less threatening to sit beside one another, and not face to face.
  6.  If the Conversation is Going Nowhere Fast: Try to stay calm. If they simply don’t want to engage, here are a few questions you can ask: Are they afraid you are going to talk to another parent? Do they think you are going to overreact? Are they concerned about getting themselves  or a friend in trouble? Sometimes they may fear repercussions from you more than discussing what is going on.
  7. Discuss  an “Amnesty” or “No judgment” Policy: Talk with your teen about asking for help or advice without “getting in trouble” or facing bigger repercussions. If you can open up a conversation so they will let you know when they are in a situation with alcohol or other at-risk situations, you can build on that trust. Follow up the next day with a conversation about what happened, and continue talking about their safety. These policies help them learn to make the right choices while encouraging them to be accountable, and for you to stay connected and open.
  8. Please Do:  Listen, Try to Understand, and Respect Your Teen.
  9. Please don’t: Criticize, Compare, Judge, Complain, Or Walk Away In Anger. 
  10. Keep the door open. Hopefully you’ve had that first conversation, but don’t let it be the last. Keep that door open by remembering our first suggestion: listen before you talk.