It can feel difficult to know how much of ‘their own space’ to give your teenager while still knowing that you need to be their parent. Learning to change a few of the things you are doing may help your teenager feel more heard and understood and bring a deeper connection that you’ll both benefit from in your relationship.

Adolescent years can indeed be challenging to navigate, both as a teen and in your role as a parent. Teenagers are learning how to be more independent, understand themselves, and make more of their own decisions. This budding independence means that your role as a parent can become uncertain and sometimes rocky, especially when communicating with your teen. But it’s not impossible to navigate communication.  

Consider these three simple changes to improve your communication style with your teenager.

  1. Don’t solve; just listen. 
    It can be so easy to go into problem-solving mode when your teenager begins to talk about how they want to buy tickets to the latest concert without considering that it’s the night before their big tournament. Maybe they’re ranting about how their math teacher must hate them because he mumbles while teaching, and they can’t even hear what he’s saying. But even though it can be so hard not to jump in and respond with suggestions on how they should consider better time management or suggest that sitting closer to the front in class may help them hear better, your teen may just need you to listen and help them feel heard.  A response like, “that seems really hard” or “I can see you’re really excited about this” could help your teen to feel heard, which can help them to feel safe to share more with you.  
  2. See yourself as a “bumper.”
    One of the best ways to support your teen is to be curious. The teenage years hold a lot of uncertainty and self-exploration. Your teen is facing feelings of self-doubt and learning to navigate so many things that feel overwhelming. You are a huge part of their process of self-discovery, which is a shift from your role in parenting during their younger years. Instead of jumping in to offer a suggestion, it may be helpful to imagine yourself as a “bumper” to keep your teen from completely derailing. I’m picturing the bumper guards that one can opt for in a bowling game to keep your ball from going into the gutter. Imagining yourself as a bumper can allow your teen to explore things that aren’t working so well and feel safe talking about these issues with you, someone they perceive to be a safe person.
  3. Let your teen discover their solutions. 
    Often in these years of self-discovery, teens are pushing against the feeling of being told what they “should” do. Although your teen still needs clear boundaries to help support their safety and development, take a few minutes to slow down and don’t tell your teen what to do. Instead, practice using open-ended questions to help your teen build their decision-making skills, skills they will need to use into adulthood. Open-ended questions could sound something like “What do you think you might need to think through before you make a decision?” or “I wonder what you think could happen if you did this, versus your other option?” Even if your teen’s response is limited, simply asking questions that allow them to think and consider for themselves will show them that you are concerned but that you value their input and autonomy in making wise and healthy choices for themselves. 

Choosing a More Open Way to Navigate Communication

By simply shifting toward a more open and curious way of communication with your teen, you may find that they’ll may begin to share more openly and may begin to be more open to listening to your input as they navigate challenges. This new way of communicating may help reduce the tension that often comes up when your teen feels they are being told how they should think or act.

It can be hard to hold a steady balance of care and concern for your teen while helping keep them safe from all the pressures they are facing. Yet sometimes, our desire to help can create a feeling of distance as your teen responds to your assistance by shutting down or limiting what they feel safe talking about with you. Listening to your teen helps them feel heard and may allow them to open up and share what they are going through – which can help bring about a connection where you can help them learn and grow as they develop their understanding of themselves and the world around them.  

Kristi Wollbrink, AMFT
Kristi Wollbrink, AMFT

I help individuals and couples decrease anxiety in order to find meaning and connection.