How To Talk To Your Teen

written by: Dr. Rebecca Miller, School Psychologist


When “I can’t talk to my teen” really means “my teen doesn’t want to talk to me” which really means “my teen doesn’t want to listen to me” which really means “why won’t my teen listen to me?” What do you do?
If you approach every conversation with your teen remembering that they’re sorting through a ton of emotions, they’re trying to find their way in the world, and they just want to be understood, then you can have more meaningful conversations. Sometimes what is perceived as emotionally charged by your teen may not have been observed at that level by an adult—and that right there can halt a conversation and definitely can interfere with your teen actually hearing what you have to say. If we look at some work used in crisis counseling, we can adapt and use similar techniques to talk about virtually anything—particularly emotionally charged teen life.
By using the technique of Empathize, Validate, and Normalize you can help yourself feel present in the conversation, your teen will feel like they can and want to share information with you, and your teen will feel that she should share because she’ll feel better afterward.
Empathizing with a person does not mean that you agree with them. You can completely disagree, but still understand that your teen is going through an emotion that is affecting them.  By paraphrasing what they have just told you instead of reacting they know that you are listening and that you know they have something important to say to you.  

Teen:  “I thought she was my best friend, but she went to the movies with someone else, and they didn’t even invite me.”
You: “You’re really hurt by not getting invited, too.”
Teen: “I can’t believe I got a C+ on this paper. I worked all weekend on it and actually tried. Why should I put more effort in when I’m not going to get an A or B when I try hard?”
You: “You’re frustrated and feel like your work wasn’t valued.”
Empathizing with a situation is not offering advice or trying to fix the situation. It is just being there, actively listening to both the words and the emotions, and showing that you are trying to understand where the person is coming from.
Validating a person does not mean that you agree that it was a situation feel hurt, angry, to get emotional about, it just means that you have listened to the situation and you understand that the person is upset about it.  

Teen:  I have so much to do tonight!  I have a ton of homework, I have to memorize my monologue, take a shower, and you are asking me to unstack the dishwasher?  You are SO UNFAIR.”
You: “It’s hard when you have so much to do, and you feel like there is more being asked of you.”
Teen: “I’m not going to hear who made varsity until Monday! Why does the dumb coach take so long to post the list?”
You: “Spending the weekend with uncertainty is uncomfortable.”
By listening to the issue and validating that you understand what your teen is upset about without attaching your own emotions to the statement can allow your teen to relax, help them separate the emotion from the event, and it can allow your teen to put this event into context.  
Finally normalizing a situation can help your teen feel like the situation is something that happens to others; therefore there is a way to manage it.  If one feels like they are the only person in the world with X problem (like many teens often do), then one can feel very isolated, lost, and scared.  

Teen: “I wish I could hit more three’s during games. I can do it at basketball practice! I have such a hard time when you’re at my games looking at me. I shouldn’t even be on the travel team.”
You: “Just because you weren’t the top scorer tonight doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s a lot of pressure to play in that loud gym against other players that you’re not used to.  It’s totally normal to feel differently during games and practice.”
Teen: “If I don’t go out tonight my friends are going, and on Monday when they’re all talking about it I’m going to feel left out.  Is that what you want?”
You: “No one wants to feel left out, and that’s normal, but your friends are not going to drop you because you missed one night out.  Eric didn’t go out last weekend with you guys.”
By using the tools of Empathize, Validate, and Normalize you can work with your teen and allow them space to think about their concerns in a logical way, feel understood, and be open to hearing your wise words. These tools are never saying that you condone an over-the-top response; instead, it opens the door to discussion. When your teen feels like they can talk and be heard as opposed to judged they will feel more comfortable sharing, and they’ll be able to listen to what you’re trying to say to them.
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