Five Communication Tips in Relating to Teens

Simple Suggestions for a Healthy Relationship

Adolescence is the time in your child’s life where they are moving towards independence, creating themselves as an individual, their own identity, separate from you, different from you. It is called “individuation” or “identity formation” in the mental health field and is usually a time of development that is fraught with arguments and power-struggles. If you find yourself thinking that your child just doesn’t listen to you, if seemingly minor requests, turn into major arguments then chances are that you and your teen aren’t connecting. Teens often feel that we are talking “at” them and not “to” them. They want a different connection to you, but don’t know how to ask for it. Harvard University did a study on parent involvement releasing a 100 page document entitled, Raising Teens. They found that parents often interpret adolescent behavior as their child needing less involvement and more space. In truth, it is a different kind of involvement that they are seeking. Teens still look at their parents as their #1 role models and the person they would go to in times of difficulty. These simple tweaks in your communication style may make all the difference in creating and maintaining a positive relationship.

1. Ask for What You Want. Tone can make a huge difference. If you have a rule to not leave shoes by the front door perhaps you say, “Are those your shoes by the door?” vs. “Get your shoes right now, I have tripped over them again!” Or “When do you think you will have time to work on your project?” instead of “You can’t go out with your friends until your project is done.”Framing requests or expectations in the form of questions allows the teen to be involved in the decision making. Teens tend to interpret tone and facial expressions more intensely than adults – and take them more personally. And teens have their developing brains swimming in hormones that can alter those social interpretations. Brain research has also found that problem solving, risk assessment, and abstract thinking (all functions of the frontal lobe) are continuing to develop into their early 20’s. They have also found that teens often interpret fear, worry, or surprise as anger. So be sure to access your “calm parent” voice. Even if they are escalating, perhaps even screaming, you remain calm. You can always talk later when they have calmed down and are more rational. These escalated arguments just leave room for power-struggles and stalemates.

2. Avoid Power Struggles by Stating your Values. Before you give your child privileges or freedoms, let them know your expectations. For Instance, “It is important that we all drive safely. You may use the family car this weekend, only you need to be driving alone and have the car back by dark. You will need more practice driving before I feel safe enough with you driving at night.” And then follow-up when your child leaves the house with, “Remember our rule, safety first, when can I expect you home?” This gives them a chance to problem-solve and self-govern at the same time. Now, you can use “safety first” as a short cut to remind them of other rules. “Safety First” can work with driving, risky behaviors @ parties or with groups of friends, underage drinking… All of these lead to safety concerns and possibly undesired consequences. Other values can include hard work or effort, following through with doing what you say (reliability). When stating values allow for discussion with your teen, it is important not to come off as a “dictator” but rather a concerned and protective parent.

3. Let them know what you Like and Appreciate about them. They do want to please you. Let them know the little things that make a difference in your family life. Like, “Thank you for putting the dishes away in the dishwasher before I start dinner, it makes clean up so much easier.” Or, “Thank you for helping your sister with her Math. You seem to know how to do the new math so much better than I do.” Or “I really like your friends. They seem like such nice guys/girls”. (It is very important that you acknowledge and like their friends- even if it is just some, not all.) Sometimes we are more courteous to strangers than to our own family.

4. Touch base with them. Use specific questions to inquire about their day in a non-evaluative way. For instance,“What are you learning in Science right now?” or “Is Tony in any of your classes this year?” Or even after the back to school night you might want to know who their favorite teacher is, and share your impressions too. I have talked many parents who only know vague notions of how their child is doing. I hear, “She seems to be fine. There are no complaints so far.” Or “She seems happy to me.” Or “He doesn’t ask for help, so I guess he understands it.” It could be just a few minutes in the car, or during dinner, or while you are running errands. These questions indicate that you want to know about their life and are ready to listen, not necessarily to advise.

5. Don’t Rush in to Rescue, Critique, Advise or Fix . Listen instead. Simpler said than done! Your teen wants to solve their own problems, sometimes they already know what they are going to do to make the situation better. So when your child tells you something distressing, you can just use minimal language, like “Oh, that’s a bummer.” Or “Hmm”, “I see”, “Okay”. And wait to see how your child verbalizes how they are going to solve the problem. For instance, “Tammi didn’t invite me to her party this weekend.” You respond with, “Oh”. Your daughter feels safe sharing so she adds, “Yeah, at first I was really bummed, but then I realized that I really don’t know the other girls going anyway and might feel really uncomfortable”. Many parents want to rush in to rescue and advise their teen with “Well, then don’t invite her to your party” or “We can find something better to do anyway” or “I never really liked her, so you’re better off without her as a friend.” These tend to actually make your child feel worse! By now you have probably given your child lots of good advice and wisdom – it is time to see them use it. These minimal verbal responses let them know you are listening, but not controlling. That you are present. That you are interested. That you are willing to listen.

The Pressure of Parenting Teens

They want us to be their biggest cheerleaders, yet they act like they could care less what we think. We can’t make a comment about their appearance yet they let us know how embarrassing we are to their friends. They know everything, yet somehow we have managed to complete our education, raise children, take care of our own parents in the mix, and still are able to walk around and not know anything. If you are parenting a teen, this is your world.

Teens are 50% attitude, 25% sensitivity, and 25% sensibilities. And at the same time they are learning to drive, starting to date, and doing some of the most difficult coursework they will do in their lives. It must be difficult for them to make it so difficult for us.

If we take a moment to consider the complexity of their lives, we realize that in some ways their fortunate lives are difficult. Think about when you were a teen and the demands that you had and what you spent your time doing. I was working and dating and driving, but I had much less pressure socially, academically, and physically. Our kids have much more social pressure in terms of the amount of communication – consider social media, texting, and tweeting. They really are never away from it. It surrounds them in a constant vapor of peer scrutiny. And academically, most schools promote and encourage AP classes starting in sophomore year. We are expecting more from them at a much younger age. Think about it -now kids are taking college courses at 15 years of age. Would you have been ready to do that? Would you have wanted to? And the pressure of sports gets in the mix. Daily practice and extended seasons – and year round sports. Am I overwhelming you yet? I should be!

So my thoughts are that it is no wonder they think they are adults. It is no wonder they are irritable and stressed. It is no wonder they treat us like we don’t know anything.

Perhaps we all need to pause, take a breath, and realize that it is the journey that is important. Being good at anything means that there was hard work and dedication somewhere in the process- and that is the payoff. We learn from hard work, making mistakes, and having the diligence to try again. We also learn from having the down-time to enjoy and appreciate our lives. If you think about feel-good childhood memories, many of them involve what we are doing when we were doing “nothing”. We shouldn’t have to be the best at everything, just the best at being ourselves. Perhaps we need time-off from it all just to realize that purpose comes from just being ourselves and being together – allowing life to unfold and to learn from it.

If there is one thing teens are telling us, that is that they need time to just do nothing, to just be – and when we get that time with our kids all else seems to fall into place. And maybe with a little less pressure, our kids will see that we are okay, that we understand them, and that we are people worth being around.

Battling Backtalk: Five Tips Every Parent Needs

From Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions

Whether it’s a toddler’s defiant “No,” or a teenager screaming, “You can’t tell me what to do,” backtalk is enough to make any parent’s blood boil. What’s worse, it often seems our natural reaction to backtalk (“How dare you speak to me that way” or “You’ll do it because I said so, young lady!”;) only makes the problem snowball.

No one wants to raise a bratty kid, but it seems parents everywhere are battling backtalk. In fact, this is the number one behavioral issue sited by parents who contact me -– filled with frustration and wondering where they’ve gone wrong. Bill Cosby captured that frustration well when he famously joked, “I brought you into this world… I can take you out!”

So what can do we do to stop backtalk in its tracks? First, let’s look at the reasons behind it.


Why do kids talk back?
Kids talk back for a variety of reasons. They may be testing your limits or trying to get a reaction. Perhaps they’re hungry, tired or just having a bad day. However, if backtalk is frequent, it’s usually the child’s way of exerting his power and saying “You’re not the boss of me.”

We’re all hard-wired with a need for POSITIVE power -– the ability to have some control over our lives. When parents over-protect, over-demand, or constantly order, correct and direct their kids… they strip them of independence and personal power.

The only way our kids know to respond is to fight back. It’s a basic fight or flight response. They can’t easily flee (your food and shelter are way better than they can afford on their own), so they fight back with backtalk, attitude, negotiating, arguing, stomping away, eye rolling, etc.

All kids, toddlers through teens, seek to exert their independence -– it’s what they’re supposed to do. Our goal as parents is to foster their independence within our limits and without the back talk.


Here are five tips to help you reduce backtalk in your house.

Own your role: Power struggles that lead to backtalk are a two-way street and parents also play a starring role. Be aware of your day in and day out communication with your kids (and your spouse, for that matter!) Watch your tone of voice and minimize the amount of ordering, correcting and directing you do. No one wants to be “bossed around” all day and the natural reaction is to fight back.

Remember, it’s not about “winning” the battle. It’s about recognizing that your child needs more control over her life and helping her find ways to have positive power within your boundaries.

Fill the attention basket: Kids of all ages have an attention basket -– plain and simple. If they don’t get sufficient positive attention, they will use negative behaviors to provoke us until they get our attention. From their perspective, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Fill their attention baskets in positive ways by spending one-on-one time with your kids daily. It doesn’t have to be a long time – just 10 minutes when they have your undivided time and attention (if the phone rings, don’t answer… if your Blackberry chirps, let it go.) As you fill their attention baskets positively and proactively, your kids will become more cooperative and less likely to provoke power struggles.

Finding a spare 10 minutes to spend with each child can seem daunting in a busy non-stop life, but think of it as an “investment” in good behavior, a calmer home and less backtalk.

Give power to the people: Find ways to give your people the positive power they need. Provide more choices — within your family boundaries –- so they can have more control over their world. To a toddler, power means choosing between a Batman and Spiderman toothbrush. To a teenager, it can be allowing him to decide which restaurant the family goes to on Saturday night.

Chill out: Don’t overreact! Kids talk back to get a reaction. When you get upset and respond with “you will not talk to me that way, young man”, they score with a power payoff.

Instead, get eye to eye and very calmly say, “I feel hurt/disrespected when you speak to me that way. When I hear that tone of voice, I’m going to walk away. I’ll be happy to talk with you when we can speak to each other respectfully.”

Then – walk away! The next time it happens, don’t remind; don’t say a word. Just calmly walk away. It sends the message, “I won’t participate in this power struggle with you.”

Rule of law: Be very clear about the rules in your house and be equally clear about the consequences if the rules are broken. Then, if kids push the limits, follow through -– each and every time. Parents don’t have to be harsh or overly strict. They just have to set fair limits, communicate those limits clearly and be consistent in implementing consequences when appropriate.

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two boys, ages 12 and 14. Positive Parenting Solutions teaches parents of toddlers to teens how to correct misbehaviors permanently without nagging, reminding or yelling.

For free training resources and additional information on backtalk, power struggles, whining, tantrums and more, visit:

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