Parents of Teenagers: Getting through the hard conversations

As a counsellor, I love talking to teenagers. 

They are smart enough to know so much, and their zest for life often makes it so that they do not let any fears hold them back from going after their dreams.  This ability to go after their dreams makes teenagers an inspiring group of people to work with.

So if I love talking to teenagers so much, why are they so infamously difficult to talk to?

Allowing Teens to Be Imperfect

Something I hear so often from parents is that they're open to hearing anything and talking through anything with their teens, but when I talk to teenagers what I hear so often is that they do not want to wreck the perception that their parents have of them of being "perfect" and they also don’t want to get in trouble.  What is this "perfect" that they're talking about and what are they worried about getting in trouble over?  It's often about making choices that they don't want you to know about: trying different substances, dating or having sexual encounters with people, having their grades slip, not being a good friend, wishing they had the confidence to go after a goal, or being bullied by their peers. Some conversations are hard ones to have, both for parents and for teenagers.

Are you okay to have those tricky conversations with your teens?  Are you open to what they have to say about hard topics?

Most of us think we are, but then in the moment something happens and we shut down a little bit.  Sometimes we shut down by getting mad, sometimes we shut down by being disappointed, sometimes we shut down by jumping to a solution without listening fully to the distress teenagers are going through. Sometimes we shut down when we know there’s an important conversation, but we avoid it because the teens aren’t bringing it up and it’s awkward for us.

To open up a conversation with your teenager, you can say something like, "I don't want it to be a taboo subject in our household, so I think I should be the one to open the conversation about drugs.  There's a crisis going on with fentanyl, and I'm curious what you know about it.  Maybe you even know more than I do.  What do you know already?"

And you don't have to know all the answers about any of the conversations that teenagers are generally worried about having with you.  You can Google it together, and you can both learn some new things.

I can promise you that I've heard from so many teenagers over the years some very powerful messages around dating, bullying, and drugs.  When I ask them where they got their info, it so often comes from parents.  They're listening to these important conversations.

What if your teenager tells you something you aren't ready to hear?

I'm a big believer than knowing is better than not knowing.  I also believe that loving kindness is what is behind most positive action and change.  So what do you do if your teenager tells you something that you weren't ready to hear?  What do you do if they tell you that they are feeling uncomfortable because they had sex or that they want to have sex, or what do you do if they tell you they tried cocaine at a party?

The first thing I would generally recommend saying is a big Thank You.  Thanking them for trusting you enough to tell you this difficult thing will go a long way to soothing their worried nerves about bringing it up in the first place.  Then I'd suggest getting curious and asking more open questions that allow your teenager to communicate what they're thinking about, feeling, and/or going through.

Let's pretend for a moment that your teenager tells you that they are pregnant or that they have gotten someone pregnant.  That's likely a moment of shock, and yet the good news is that your teenager telling you.  If you hold it in your heart that your response to hearing something you're not ready to hear is "Thank you for telling me," then your teen will likely remember that for the rest of their life.  Then you can ask them the questions so that they can open up more.

Does that mean that all you do is say thank you and listen?  Of course not.

When is a good time to give advice?

Some people will say that never is a great time for advice.  I don't buy into that, because good advice has helped me make some of the best decisions of my life. And good advice has helped me avoid making some bad decisions. 

The reason why I believe so strongly in listening and being curious is so that it can get you and your teenager into a place of understanding what's going on.  More often than not your teen will likely have a great solution to their own problem and you can help them to step into owning their own brilliant choice. 

But sometimes they might not have all the information needed to make a good choice, so your advice could be to look into it more. 

Let's say for instance that your teenager is struggling with French and wants to drop it as a class in school.  First get curious about why the class isn't going well.  Then get curious about why French might be an important topic to study (learning Canada's other language or getting into certain universities are two of the main reasons in Canada).  After you've learned all the resistance to continuing in French class and gone over the reasons why it might be important to take anyway,  try letting your teenager talk themselves through that decision.  They'll likely come to a decision that is right for them and that you feel good about, but if you find yourselves on two different sides of the choice you can explain why you're thinking what you're thinking about it and what your advice is.

There's sometimes a desire to skip to advice before talking things out.  A classic example is around drugs.  As an adult you're likely well aware of all the challenges that can result from drug use and you'd like to avoid any of those for your teenager.  It's still an important two-sided conversation to have.  And with something as serious as drug use, it is important for parents to give advice on what to do around it.  

My general rule when giving out advice is that the more risky the choice is, the more likely I will give advice.  I think that's a good general rule for all of us to take when talking to teenagers and other people.

Hard conversations can be fun

A hard conversation doesn't need to be terrifying.  In fact you can even make jokes during these hard conversations to lighten the mood for everyone.  You can go and do something while you're having a talk like have a walk or playing a game.

Sometimes it's those hard conversations that can be the most inspirational and transformative for the teenagers in your life.  

Teenagers are listening and when I ask them about the importance of their parents in their lives more often than not the response is that parents are so important.  Parents are important for navigating tough choices, parents are important for understanding new things, and parents are important for building them back up when things get hard or scary or uncertain.