Tips for having a difficult conversation with your teen

a young person talking to their parent in a cafe

Every family has to deal with challenges, and for parents of teens, those challenges can become complicated and overwhelming. As young people grow up, they gain their own perspective on the world and develop their own style of communication. Because teenagers are still learning to express themselves and find their independence, conversations about these tricky topics can easily get off track. Sometimes, they escalate into anger and frustration, or your teen might just avoid talking altogether.

A difficult but important conversation can prevent other issues developing down the road. Importantly, if families can develop the skills to communicate effectively about one topic, you or your teen might be able to find the confidence to open up about other important issues.

A few reasons why these conversations can be so challenging:

  • Your teenager might not want to talk at all.

  • Your teenager is finding it hard to empathise with your perspective.

  • Conversations with your teen quickly lose focus and devolve into conflict.

  • You or your teen are afraid to express what you truly feel.

Before the conversation

Plan ahead

Before approaching your teen for a tricky conversation, try to think about what you’d like to achieve and the things you’d like to say. This can help you express your thoughts better while also keeping your conversation on track.

Depending on your communication styles and what you’re talking about, it might help you to break down your chat into several different topics you can address in separate conversations. Here’s one example of how that could work:

  1. Have a conversation where you just ask your teen questions to gauge how they feel about what you want to talk about.

  2. Your second conversation might be when you tell them how you feel about it.

  3. From there, you could think about ways to fix the problem and chat about that in a third conversation.

  4. This works because the more time people have to think independently about a certain topic, the more comfortable they generally feel talking about it.

Give your teen time to think about it

Give your teen a general idea of what you’d like to discuss with them and ask when might be a good time to talk. When people feel like they’re getting ‘put on the spot’, they often aren’t able to think very clearly – and this can lead to tension and heightened emotions.

Choose a good place to chat

Conversations are likely to go well when they’re in a neutral place where you and your teen won’t be overheard. Some people talk more openly when they don’t have to make eye contact with the other person, whereas other people prefer a more intimate setting. Everyone’s preferences are different, so try to think about places where you’ve had nice conversations in the past. Here are some examples of good places to chat:

  • during a walk

  • in the car

  • in the living room or kitchen while no one else is at home.

Chat in written form

Some families have found that writing each other emails or letters can be helpful for discussing heavier topics. This strategy allows each person time to organise their thoughts and to express themselves fully and at their own pace. It can also be useful for people who find verbal communication challenging. One thing to consider if you choose this method is that you’ll both lack visual cues about how the other is feeling, such as each other’s body language and tone of voice. For this reason, it can be useful to organise a follow-up, face-to-face chat after you've each read what the other has to say.

During the conversation

Use active listening

Active listening can be a bit of a tricky concept because it incorporates so many different skills. But at its core, active listening is simple: it just means that you’re talking in a way where you understand what the other person is really saying and where they feel heard by you.

Here are a few skills that are a part of active listening:

Being patient: When teenagers talk to their parents about sensitive issues, the biggest problem they face is that sometimes they aren’t able to express themselves. If your teenager tells you about an issue they’re going through, before you give them advice or express your own perspective, make sure you’ve fully explored theirs first.

Asking questions: The best way to explore your teen’s perspective is to just ask them. If you hear about a problem your teen has faced, here are a few good questions to ask:

  • How long have you been feeling this way?

  • What do you think caused this problem?

  • How does it feel when you’re going through this issue?

Clarifying meaning: No one’s perfect at communicating their feelings precisely, so miscommunication happens. Sometimes, it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusions from what your teen has said. It can be helpful to clarify or ‘recap’ what they’ve said to make sure you understand.

Withholding judgement: Teens might not share certain information with their parents and carers because they’re afraid of being judged. Sometimes, judgement is intentional, while other times it may be unintentional.

Know when to take some time out

If a conversation is going in the wrong direction, usually the best thing is to take a breather and re-evaluate the situation. Here are a few signs that you might need to give your teen some space:

  • Your conversation is becoming tense and emotional.

  • You’re getting distracted from what you wanted to talk about by insignificant issues, in a way that’s not helpful.

  • You’re talking about the same thing over and over, in a way that feels like it’s not progressing.

After you chat

Reflect on your conversation.

  • Did you have a chance to express what you’re really feeling?

  • Did you give your teen opportunities to open up and talk honestly with you?

  • Did you get to the bottom of the issues you discussed, instead of just glossing over them?

  • Did your teen feel like you might be judging them, even if you didn’t mean to?

Creating open and honest communication with your teenager takes time – it’s not an overnight process. As you think about the answers to these questions, remember that you can always take what you’ve learnt and use it next time you chat with your teen.

If it didn’t go so well

If you’ve tried having an open and honest conversation with your teen, you’ve made a positive step towards having a better relationship with them, even if it didn’t go quite as you had expected. If they didn’t open up much or communicate openly with you, you’ve at least given them something to reflect on. As teens grow and their communication skills develop, these situations can change and it’s always worth trying a second, third or even a fourth time to have that important chat.

Did you find what you needed?

  • Yes - Read about how to ask questions that will encourage your teen to open up more.