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Resource | Lessons Learned

How to Talk…and Listen…to Your Teen

In a perfect world, we parents try to put building blocks in place to create a strong foundation for our kids when they are young.  We continue to build on that as they transition to middle school and high school. A strong foundation means when the time comes to discuss harder issues — like drug usage or alcohol — we’ve already got a healthy start.

Why does that matter?  The data on first use, or initiation, by teens is staggering. Look at just some of the numbers on teens from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

An estimated 316,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 misused  prescription pain relievers for the first time in 2017 – that’s 900 teens each day.
Approximately 217,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17, misused prescription stimulants for the first time in 2017 – that’s 600 teens each day.
In 2017, an estimated 1.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 used marijuana for the first time – that’s approximately 3,300 teens each day.

No matter how good your relationship is with a young child, things can change in the teen years.  This is the time your son or daughter begins to want both independence and control. Your family dynamics may have also shifted – because of divorce, illness, or a move – and you suddenly face communication barriers.  With some families, there may have been other barriers to creating that early relationship with your child, which makes it even more daunting to try to start a relationship in the teen years.

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, you have to be ready to listen and really hear what they want to say.

Look for Small Opportunities to Get a Conversation Going: Discussions about substance use should start early and occur often. Look for windows of opportunity to discuss the topic – in songs, movies, or advertisements. Use this as a neutral space to discuss the topic.

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 telling, is the most important thing we can do to connect with our teen. 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.

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.

Be the Parent: As tempting as it may be to try to talk like one of your teen’s friend, don’t. They can see right through it.

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 to any more than we did.

Don’t multitask if you are trying to talk:  

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.

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.

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 themself or a friend in trouble? Sometimes they may fear repercussions from you more than discussing what is going on.

Consider an Amnesty Policy: Discuss with your teen about asking for help 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. Amnesty policies help them learn to make the right choices while encouraging them to be accountable.

Please Do:  Listen, Try to Understand, and Respect Your Teen.

Please Don’t: Criticize, Compare, Judge, Complain, Or Walk Away in Anger.

When you have that first conversation, please don’t let it be the last. Keep that door open by remembering our first suggestion: listen before you talk.