Talking with Your Teen: Having those Challenging Conversations


In preparation for writing When Dating Becomes Dangerous, my coauthor Barrie Levy and I interviewed many parents who expressed how difficult it was get their children to talk to them about sex, dating, staying safe, etc. Most admitted that they were just as uncomfortable and avoidant as their teens and tweens. Yet they all expressed how important it was to have these kinds of conversations - as challenging as they might be. Teens have told us that it is so difficult to talk about sexual abuse or other kinds of problematic sexual or dating experiences. One teen told me "parents don’t talk to us, teachers aren't allowed to, health classes are cut back... so where do we go to talk about these things?"

In the book, we focus on what it takes to bridge the gap between the uncomfortable and the comfortable when it comes to discussing issues critical to safety and health.  The first thing is to set the stage to have these conversations. Parents can create opportunities for discussion by " showing up" in a relaxed manner when they know their teen is available - for example hanging out with them late at night when teenagers are most awake, or driving someplace together. Often the best conversations happen while driving. Sitting side-by-side having a parallel conversation takes the intensity of looking into eyes away.  Most teens try to avoid face-face conversations.

Parents can ask their teens questions about something they saw or heard coming from a place of openness and curiosity. Show interest but not too much. Often they perceive parents interest as interrogators, wanting to find things out (often they are right).

Often teens are not keen on hearing from their parents when we lecture or come from a place of "knowing it all," having all the answers. It seems simple to converse with adolescents but its not always easy.  We have to look for openings and opportunities. This is actually a skill that parents can practice.  We can also try listening more and talking less.

Taking advantage of "teachable moments" is key.  If there is something in the news or on television that can be an opening, take advantage of inquiring what your teen might think about the behavior of a certain celebrity or the storyline in a movie. Quiet times like these are occasions when you can engage with each other without judgment or lecture. Building trust in your relationship is a key to being able to have challenging conversations about relationships. Inquiring about what your teen thinks a healthy relationship is about will stimulate their thinking about the subject. And that's what we as parents want - our children's neurons fired up: thinking, analyzing information, struggling with complexity so that their brains grow strong and nimble to deal with what life presents. Challenging conversations are worth having on many levels.  We want our children to go beyond getting answers from us or elsewhere, but want to help them think and discern for themselves.  Life will give them lots... we want to prepare them for that.