Connect With Your Teen: Strategies for Effective Communication

Peace at Home May 5, 2023 | Stephanie Rondeau

Talking with your teen can feel like communicating with someone from outer space. It may seem like you can’t understand their thought processes or why they make certain decisions. The good news is that it’s not just you—there’s a good reason behind your struggle. 

It’s biology. Your teen’s brain is a work in progress. While adults generally use the prefrontal cortex for decision making, teens rely more on the limbic system—the emotional portion of the brain. This is not a choice for them, it’s a biological stage of development. So what may seem like rash or emotional decision making to you is what their brain does naturally.
Teen brains rely more on passion and their decision making is naturally more reactive than adults. To adolescents, social rejection may feel life threatening. They feel a deep need to belong with their peers. Trying to develop an understanding of this as an adult is a wonderful first step toward connecting with your teen on a deeper level. 

There are proven strategies you can use to connect with your teen. These tips will help you form a bond that creates a feeling of safety for them, allowing them to more openly share their concerns, questions, and life experiences. Consider the following if you don’t know where to start:

  • Conversation starter cards. If you are a family that typically has a hard time communicating, you may want to start with something concrete like conversation starter cards. Set aside time with no distractions to get to know your teen through pre-written questions and active listening. These questions should be open ended, encouraging dialogue between the two of you.
  • Accept and reflect teen emotions with an open mind. Active listening can take practice, but it’s an important part of connecting with your child. Try to really listen and paraphrase what they’re telling you. Check that you understand what they’re saying. Allow them to feel their emotions as their own, even if you don’t agree with them. 
  • Make mealtime and bedtime discussions a regular occurrence. Regular family mealtimes are a wonderful opportunity for connection and sharing about daily life. Keeping phones and other distractions away from the dinner table and before sleep allows conversation to flow freely, even if you need to use a list of conversation starters, such as favorite part of the day, least favorite, etc. When families have meals together several times a week, teens do better in school and display fewer problem behaviors. 
  • Take advantage of “parallel” time. Some discussions are difficult to have face to face. Many teens and adults alike have an easier time talking about challenging or more emotional topics when sitting parallel, such as riding in the car. Taking the pressure off of eye contact and giving space for silent reflection can be a great way to encourage teens to open up about certain topics.
  • Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Your teen is much more likely to answer a question if it doesn’t come attached to a preconceived notion about their answer. Asking questions like, “How did you feel about that?” or “How might you do that differently next time?” or “What outcome were you hoping for?” allows for thoughtful and genuine responses. And the important follow up to this? Really listening to those answers. 
  • Try to remember those biological differences. Remembering that a teen brain calculates risk differently than yours may help you to frame a conversation before you begin. Try using the open-ended questions mentioned previously instead of blaming, shaming, or assuming reasons for risk taking behaviors. 

Connecting with your teen can seem difficult or downright impossible. By trying some of these strategies, you may help them feel more comfortable sharing things with you. And just as important, you may feel more comfortable in receiving their responses as well. 

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