Talking With Teens

converstions at dinner table

Talking at the Dinner Table: Having Healthy Family Conversations

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Thanksgiving is a time for gathering, laughter, and warm belly-filling food. As with any relationship, the key to building a positive relationship is to keep the line of communication open.

Communicating with teens can sometimes be difficult, in busy households, it’s easy to overlook making time and space in your day to have a really good talk with your child and find out what’s going on in their life.

And if we do make time, sometimes we can get locked into unhelpful ways of communicating – bickering, nagging, criticizing, lecturing – that once we’re in are hard to avoid.

Your relationship is changing, and you have to be flexible and able to change with your child. But don’t ever think that they need you any less as a good sounding board. During adolescence, they need you just as much as they ever did. The best way to support them is by making sure they’ll come to you with any problems they’re having, and that’s why effective communication is so important.

Keys to effective communication

Barriers to effective communication

Try these following to encourage effective communication at the dinner table and beyond.

  • Open ended questions — “how did that make you feel?”
  • Actively listen — let them know you are listening by summarizing the situation as you heard it. “So let me see if I’ve got this right. You……. Is that how it happened?” Avoid adding your own judgment!!!
  • Validate their feelings — “It sounds as if you were [insert emotions here], were you?”
  • Move forward — “What do you think is the best thing to do now?”
  •  Talk about positive things happening in their life, and acknowledge the struggles

Try to minimize the following, which act as barriers to effective communication.

  • Interruptions and distractions — this may display disinterest in what your child is saying
  • Unsolicited advice — no one likes unsolicited advice; rather, try listening fully then ask to offer advice
  • Judgement — who likes to judge off the bat? Not me, and hopefully not you! Instead of judging what your child has to say, validate their point of view
  • Interrogation — O.K. so Thanksgiving is the time to find out what’s going on in your child’s life…

LEAVE THEM ROOM TO TALK, FREELY & OPENLY. They didn’t commit a crime. Don’t keep firing questions at them

There is always more than one way to work through things. Having these sorts of conversations helps your child explore how they manage their relationships and gives them clues about how to communicate well with others.

Author: Elizabeth Nguyen

Tips for Positive Communication

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When to Talk
  • When TV, telephone and computers are turned off (to reduce distraction).
  • When siblings aren’t around.
  • When there isn’t a time limit. (Not 5 minutes before leaving the house).
  • When everyone is calm.
How to Talk
  • Chose appropriate time.
  • Be respectful of each other.
  • Make a genuine effort to see their point of view.
  • Watch your body language and keep your voice down.
  • Avoid “you statements”.   Instead, use “I statements”.
  • Don’t just talk about the other person’s feelings and thoughts. Reflect and talk about your own, also.
How to Listen
  • Pay attention to your body language.
  • Ask for clarification.
  • Mirror what the other person says (“So you’re saying…”).
  • Let the other person finish their thoughts.
  • Pay attention to the words and emotions – practice empathy.

Talking About Sex

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How do adults become askable?

As a parent, it’s very important for you to be “askable”. What does that mean? To be askable means that young people see you open to questions. Being askable about sexual topics is something that most parents want but that many find very hard. Probably many adults didn’t have much sex education when growing up. In many homes sex was not discussed whether from fear, out of embarrassment or lack of knowledge.

Some adults feel worried because they think:

  • They don’t know the right words or the right answers;
  • They are too old for their kids;
  • They can be giving too much or too little information; or giving information at the wrong time.

Being askable is important. Studies show that youth who have less or wrong information about sexuality and its risks may experiment more and at earlier ages compared to youth who have more information. Research also shows that when teens are able to talk with their parents about sex and about protection, are less likely to have sexual contact than teens who haven’t.  Finally, youth often say that they want to talk about sex, relationships, and sexual health with their parents—parents are their preferred source of information on these subjects.

Because being askable is so important and because so many parents find hard to start conversations about sex with their kids, adults may need to learn about sex education to feel more confident talking about it. Here are some tips from experts about sex education.

  1. Remember how you felt when you were a teen. Remember that it was a difficult time. One moment, a teen wants to be totally independent, and the next moment urgently needs an adult’s support.
  2. Remember that teens want respectful conversations for both sides. Avoid ordering. Share your feelings, values, and attitudes and listen to and learn about theirs. Remember that you can’t order anyone else’s feelings, attitudes, or values.
  3. Don’t assume that a teen is sexually experienced or inexperienced, knowledgeable or naive. Listen carefully to what your teen is saying and/or asking. Respond to the teen’s actual or unstated question, not to your own fears or worries.
  4. Don’t underestimate your teen’s ability to weigh the pros and cons of her/his options. Teens have values, and they are capable of making responsible decisions, especially when they have all the needed facts and the opportunity to discuss options with you. If you give your teen misinformation she/he may lose trust in you, just as she/he will trust you if you are a reliable source of clear and truthful information. Of course, a teen’s decisions may be different from ones you would make.

Being askable is a lifelong component of relationships. It opens doors to closer relationships and to family connections. It’s never too late to begin!

Tips to Talk About Sexuality

  1. Get accurate information from reliable sources. Remember that sexuality is a much larger topic than sexual contact. It includes biology and gender, of course, but it also includes emotions, intimacy, caring, sharing, and loving, attitudes, romance, and sexual orientation as well as reproduction and sexual intercourse.
  2. Learn and use the correct terms for body parts and functions.  If you have difficulty saying some words without embarrassment, practice saying these words, in private and with a mirror, until you are as comfortable with them as with non-sexual words. For example, you want to be able to say “penis” as easily as you say “elbow.”
  3. Think through your own feelings and values about love and sex. Include your childhood memories, your first love, your values, and how you feel about current sex-related issues, such as contraceptives, reproductive rights, and equality with regard to sex, gender, and sexual orientation. You must be aware of how you feel before you can effectively talk with youth.
  4. Talk with your child. Listen more than you speak.  Make sure you and your child have open, two-way communication—as it forms the basis for a positive relationship between you and your child. Only by listening to each other you can understand one another, especially regarding love and sexuality. Often, adults and youth perceive these things differently.
  5. Don’t worry about :
    • Being “with it ” Youth have that with their peers. From you, they want to know what you believe, who you are, and how you feel.
    • Being embarrassed. Your kids will feel embarrassed, too. That’s okay, because love and many aspects of sexuality, including sexual intercourse, are very personal. Young people understand this.
    • Deciding which parent should have this talk. Any loving parent or caregiver can be a good sex educator for his/her children.
    • Missing some of the answers. It’s fine to say that you don’t know. Just follow up by offering to find the answer or to work with your child to find the answer. Then do so.

Dos and Don’ts when talking to your teen

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Don’t say Instead say
You shouldn’t feel that way Please, help me to understand you
So, you can’t do any better? What are you feeling right now?
Why did you do that? Tell me, what happened?
You always do… Does what I am doing bother you?
I’m always the one that has to do this What is happening between us?
How could I do this in a different way?

Other common obstacles for communication:

  • Mandate to do something
  • Talk too much
  • Assume or make conclusions beforehand
  • Negative body language (look distracted)
  • Not making the time to listen
  • Take total control of the situation
  • Give advice or solutions
  • Give warnings or threaten
  • Criticize
  • Judge negatively
  • Make fun of them
  • Sarcasm
  • Question everything

Avoid the “Freak Out” Route

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Most parents and teens do battle, and these “power struggles” test everyone’s patience. You casually ask your daughter if she is going to wear that shirt, and she retorts, “Don’t freak out mom!” What’s a parent to do? While these challenges are a normal part of every day life with teens, there are steps to take to avoid (or at least reduce)

If we overreact or lose our cool, we diminish our control with teens and escalate the conflict. Parents show they are in charge by staying calm and dealing with an issue even-handedly. (Yes, it’s easier said than done.)


Decide on a few non-negotiable rules. These can be as simple as “no television until homework is finished,” or “put dirty clothes in the hamper.” When a teen pushes back, don’t argue over details or negotiate. Simply say, “Sorry, that is against the family rules.” Teens will try and outwit us or start an argument. Don’t over-explain, and don’t renegotiate. Just remind them of the rule.


Many conflicts are not worth your time and energy. Does it really matter if their bedroom is clean for a sleepover? Would it be the end of the world if they play one more CD? Probably not. The key to successful parenting is to know which battles are worth tackling. Concentrate only on those issues that genuinely need your attention to protect your teen’s well-being.


Conflict carries different meanings and feelings for parents and teens. When teens blow up about something we feel is “insignificant,” teens tend to forget about the issue soon afterwards. For us, the tension can linger and make us more upset.

Sometimes, we just have to let it go. Learn to ignore the “attitude,” the flip remark or the threat of disobedience from your teen.


“Because I’m the parent” doesn’t work anymore. Teens know they can reach conclusions on their own, think independently and question and debate (this may also mean arguing). Their world has expanded, and they can go to other adults and friends for advice and answers. Like it or not, it’s natural for a teen to question adult authority, and it’s ok if they don’t agree with us all the time.


Teens are developing their sense of identity – and it can be an anxious time for them. The bad news? Teens will go to great lengths to distance themselves from us so they can establish their identity and independence. The good news? Questioning the rules and re-examining beliefs we taught them is the norm. And while teens may disagree with adults sometimes for no other reason than to be different from us, they may also have a logical reason for coming to their own conclusion. It’s a challenge, but we must try to better understand how teens weigh decisions.

Adapted from: “Positive Parenting of Teens” University of Minnesota Extension Service & University of Wisconsin – Extension, 1999.


Listening to Teens

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Communication Skills to Keep the Conversation Going

Using good listening skills helps kids feel heard and encourages them to share their experience. Teens commonly feel that no one understands or listens to them. There are several reasons for this, and many can be attributed to poor communication between kids and adults. Though adults are usually well-intentioned, there are things that they often do (or don’t do) in conversations with kids that have a negative impact on how successful they are at making the teen feel “heard.” When talking with teens, try to keep these points in mind.

Be Patient

Kids may not be ready to spill their guts the first time you sit down to talk. Let them go at their own pace, and don’t press them on issues they might not be ready to discuss. They are more likely to open up if they have the freedom to share when they are ready.

Watch Your Body Language

Nonverbal communication is often even more powerful than spoken words. Check your posture, facial expressions and gestures for the message they give. Are you focused on the conversation at hand or are you distracted? Be sure to give a teen your full attention, or they will feel that their issue is unimportant to you. Make eye contact and use cues like nodding to keep the conversation moving along.

Use Reflective Listening Skills

Periodically, paraphrase what you hear and offer it back to the teen to check for understanding. Summarize both the content and the feelings underneath. Example: “It sounds like you’re saying you’ve been really mad at your mom lately because she keeps disappointing you” or “You feel frustrated because your grades aren’t where you would like them to be.” If the teen says, “Yes.” and keeps talking, you know you’re on the right track. Conversely, they may say “No, that’s no it,” and restate the issue in a different way. Either way, communication is enhanced.

Don’t Give Advice

This is often very challenging for adults who work with kids. The instinct to fix is so strong that it can be tough to sit back bite your tongue when the solution seems so obvious. But chiming in too quickly with suggestions is problematic for several reasons. First, you want to make sure that the teen has had the chance to fully express and explore the issue first. Otherwise, they will feel rushed and unimportant. Offering a quick solution can also have the unintended effect of minimizing dismissing the problem. In addition, the ultimate goal is for the teen to come up with his or her own solutions.

Help Teach Problem Solving

Start with some questions: “What have you already tried to solve this problem? What have you done to solve similar problems in the past?” The answers will give you a starting point from which to start brainstorming new or adjusted ideas. Teach kids a problem-solving model which helps them evaluate possibilities and outcomes.

Using these techniques to pace and focus your conversation around the teen’s needs will help you be a better listener, develop trust, and keep the conversations flowing.

 Taken from the 9th Annual Teen Pregnancy Prevention Conference Pre-Conference Material April 30 and May 1, 2012 Birmingham, AL


“Tough Talks” With Teens

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It’s not easy talking about sex, drugs, gangs and violence with our teens. But it’s a “must do.” Here are a few pointers and tips for talking with teens about the very real issues they face.


Know that teens will catch us off guard when they decide to ask questions about sex or other “tough” topics. Resist the urge to flee. Try saying, “I’m glad you came to me with that question.” This gives us time to think of a response, and will let teens know they can come to parents for advice. It’s important to answer the question right away, rather than put off a teen by saying something like – “you’re too young to know that!” Chances are, the subject has already come up at school and they’re already getting “advice” from their friends. When teens ask questions, look at it as an opportunity to help them learn by sharing our thoughts.


As parents, anticipation is our best friend. Anticipate what teens’ questions may have about sex, drugs or alcohol. Then, think about your responses ahead of time. What to say? It’s different for each family, but become familiar with typical questions and behaviors that occur during the teen years. Do a little digging around popular teen Web sites to find out what’s hot in a teen’s world.


If you’re feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable about a question your teen asks, say so. Acknowledging your own discomfort allows your kids to acknowledge theirs – and may make everyone feel a little less awkward all around. It’s also ok for parents to set limits. For example, you do not have to give specific answers about your own teen behaviors.


Teens know hundreds of names for various body parts that would make us blush. We shouldn’t try to be cool by using these “hip” terms when talking to teens about tough topics. It won’t work. Stick with specific and correct terminology that everyone understands.


When our kids were young, we didn’t wait until they asked if they should look both ways before crossing a busy street. We taught them. Now it’s our job to teach teens how to grow into adulthood by educating them about possible risks – sex, drugs, racial profiling and more. Decide what is important for your teens to know, and then teach them early and often. Use everyday, naturally occurring events to initiate conversations with teens about tough topics. For example, books, news articles and TV shows can be good discussion starters.


Be aware of the “question behind the question.” For example, a question such as “Does this look ok?” may often be a teen’s first attempt at trying to solve a specific problem such as feeling “normal”.

Keep your radar up and trust your instincts – if you sense your teen is dealing with a larger issue, you’re probably right.


This doesn’t mean, “be judgmental.” Teens (although they will protest) want to and should know their family’s values around sexual issues, alcohol use, dating, etc. They also should know that their opinions and feelings are respected.


Know what is taught about teen issues in your schools, churches, temples and youth groups – and Use this information as a way to talk with teens about your family’s values. Are topics on sexuality, drug and alcohol use covered? Are they talking about depression, racial profiling or gang violence in these programs? If not, you should be filling in the holes as you see fit.


Better “too much, too soon” than “too little, too late.” Talking to teens about tough issues in an open, honest and loving manner shouldn’t cause fear, nor does it lead to experimentation among teens. Teens are hearing about sex, drugs and violence everywhere else. They deserve to hear it from us.

Adapted from: “Kids Need to Know,” Family Sexual Education, Eugene, OR, and “Now What Do I Do?” by Robert Selverstone, Ph.D.