How to Talk to Your Teen
Advice from Side by Side's Irene M. Hunt School and TAY Space Programs
The terrible twos and the teen years share something in common – a desire for autonomy. But parents naturally have a hard time seeing their children struggle. Teens may act out impulsively or communicate less. That's scary for parents because they know there are issues that teenagers deal with every day like drugs and sex, healthy boundaries, body image, and peer pressure.

That knowledge makes it difficult to trust that teens will make the right choices. So, when teens do share their feelings, it is natural for parents to go right into problem solving. Bryanne Guthrie, the Lead Clinician and Clinical Supervisor at Side by Side’s Irene M. Hunt School, understands, yet cautions against it. She suggests instead, “Listen to what they are feeling. Sometimes teens just want validation, for someone to say, that sounds really challenging or it sounds like that made you really sad when she said that on social media, rather than launching right into, okay this is what we’re going to do to answer her back or you’re just going to ignore her.”
Listening rather than reacting is often hard for parents and caregivers, but more beneficial for their teens who want to learn how to do things for themselves. Validating and sitting with them can be a powerful connection that helps them through difficult times.
This may also be a period when teens communicate less frequently with adults. Side by Side’s TAY Space specializes in mental health care for 16-25 year olds and TAY Space clinician Laura Tucker agreed that the terrible twos and teens share something in common. Both a two-year-old and a teenager may fly off the handle because nether wants to be told what to do. They feel they're old enough to make their own decisions. Laura suggests, “If you're going to set firm limits, give them an explanation as to why this is your decision. Give them insights into your reasoning. Not only does it help them to have more understanding and accept the limits set, but it also creates a level of respect that the parent is giving to their child.”
Bryanne agrees that limit setting is an important part of a parent’s role. “That may come at the expense of knowing everything that is going on in your teen’s life and that is okay. There are some parents who suffer that pitfall of trying to be their teen’s friend, at the expense of being the limit setter. Parents need to ask themselves if they want to be the adult in the relationship or do they want to be the friend?”
There will be times when a teen will want to open up and pushing or forcing the exchange does not foster ease or openness. Bryanne added, “It is sometimes easier to talk when you are not looking directly at each other with that intense eye contact. So, cooking dinner together or going for a walk might make it easier to share feelings.”
Both Bryanne and Laura agree that making space and time for relaxed exchanges can promote deeper communication in a family. Both suggested these tips:
  1. Share one daily meal together with the entire family.
  2. Make that meal and at least one other time during the week a device-free time – that includes making it an agreement that every member of the family adheres to, including parents.
  3. Share casual time with your teen. That can be anything from doing a creative project together to volunteering with a local nonprofit. Just be sure both adult and teen are part of the decision making process as to the chosen activity.
  4. Be respectful of each other’s opinions during discussions, even if you don’t agree philosophically.
  5. Be consistent. At any age, we humans like to know what to expect and being consistent with your teen provides a strong model. 
Online Resources and Podcasts for Parents
Check out the Child Mind Institute website for more tips and strategies or consider adding a podcast to your listening routine.
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