Figuring out what's up with your teenager

Teenagers can sometimes be complicated, with rapidly changing moods. But with the right strategies and a healthy dose of persistence (and patience), you can learn exactly how they’re feeling, and why.

The ‘scale of 1 to 10’ method

illustration of father and daughter talking

Ask them ‘How are you on a scale of 1 to 10?’ Explain that 1 equals pretty awful and 10 equals awesome.

If they answered 7 or above:

illustration of happy girl with number 7

Awesome! Support the positivity by asking them what’s going well in their world, and what they’re looking forward to or excited about at the moment. Remind them of these things the next time their score is low.

If they answered 5 or 6:

illustration of neutral teens with number 5-6

Those periods of feeling neutral or a bit less optimistic than usual are a normal part of life. We don’t want this to be a constant or drawn-out state, though, so a rating of 5 or 6 is actually a good opportunity to get in early. Your teen may be going through something tough, or maybe there’s no particular reason for feeling this way. Reassure them that you care about how they’re going. Ask them about how their school, friends and hobbies are going. If they share with you what’s happening in their life, you can better gauge why they scored the way they did.

If they answered 4 or lower:

illustration of sad teen with number 4

Ask them what might need to happen to bring them up to a 7. Chat with them about anything they might have on their mind. Try to ask open questions such as ‘How is school going?’, and avoid using leading yes/no questions such as ‘Are you struggling at school?’

If there are specific issues going on – for example, school stress, friendship issues or bullying – check out our other resources for some tips that will help them to cope. If they’ve been a 4 or lower for weeks on end, it could be useful to ask if they want to talk about what’s going on with another adult. This can be someone you both trust, like a relative or teacher, or a professional, such as a GP or psychologist. Get more info about professional support for teens.

Ask them to score themselves regularly

illustration of mother looking at calendar

This will help you to spot trends and to act quickly if their low mood is persisting. Everyone is different – ask your teen how often they’d like you to check in with them.

Tips for creating a safe and trusting conversation

Let them speak

illustration of father listening to son

Do: Give them time and space to talk. Listen without making any judgements.

Don’t: Interrupt or talk over them, or make judgements about what’s happening.

Remove distractions

illustration of father listening to daughter, computer switched off to the side

Do: Put aside your phone, your work or the laundry, and give them your full attention.

Don’t: Multitask while your teen is talking to you. This can convey that they don’t deserve your full attention.

Acknowledge their feelings

illustration of mother supporting daughter

Do: Respond with comments like ‘That must have been hard’ or ‘Sounds like it was exciting’.

Don’t: Brush off their concerns or say things like ‘It’s not that bad. You’ll get over it.’

Give physical cues

illustration of mother nodding when listening to son

Do: Nod, make eye contact and face your teen when you’re talking to them. This shows that you’re really listening.

Don’t: Close yourself off with your body language, by facing away from your teen, crossing your arms, or not responding with facial expressions. This conveys that you’re not that interested in what they’re saying, which may prevent them from truly opening up.

It may also cause them to build up barriers in your relationship or future conversations.

Plan for later

illustration of father and daughter indicating day on calendar

Do: Ask them if they’d like to chat about the issue again, and lock it in. Be genuinely interested in your teen’s growth and development. This will let you be present through their lives, so you’ll know sooner if something is up.

Don’t: Think of these conversations as a chore or turn them into lectures. Occasionally, you might want to chat about behaviour you think your teen should work on, but most discussions should be about connecting, talking and sharing with them.

And lastly, talk to them like an adult

illustration of father and daughter sitting at table talking

Mutual respect is so important to teens. It might be a strange change to make, but teens respond much better when they are treated like equals. As a parent, you still have more life experience and knowledge than your teen, but speaking to them like an adult will reduce their defensiveness and lead to a more productive conversation.

No matter what, you care about your teen and want what’s best for them, so making some of these small adjustments can help take you one step closer to working out what’s really going on with them.