If you are respectful of your teen, they are more likely to be respectful of you. Practice key conversation etiquette like asking if it's a good time to talk, not interrupting, not talking about private topics in front of others, never (except in the case of safety) betraying their confidence, and respecting their opinions.
Other respect basics that go a long way are looking them in the eye, taking their concerns and stories seriously, and generally, treating them in a trusting and caring manner. Knocking before entering their room is also likely to set the tone for a better interaction.
While it's important to demonstrate respect for your teen, you still need to have rules and boundaries, in general, and for conversations specifically. These can be an extension of your house rules, but instead of setting expectations around curfew, electronics and phone usage, chores, or safety, these rules help maintain civil and productive dialogue.
Chores for Teens
Boundaries for conversations may include rules around yelling, giving more than a one-word answer, off-limit words (such as swear words or other inflammatory phrases that you want them to avoid, or even calling you by your first name rather than Mum or Dad), accusations, taking timeouts if arguments arise, not continually rehashing the same topics, and not getting into the parent's personal life.
Setting specific rules for your talks can help, especially if your conversations have been tense. Ideally, parents and teens create these guidelines together so that everyone's concerns are addressed and all parties can agree on an acceptable framework for communication.
Strategies for Setting Healthy Boundaries for Children
Take a Breath
Sometimes, it can make a world of difference if you take a breath before speaking. Your first impulse may be to say something you'll regret—or that will be taken all wrong. For example, if your teen shares an embarrassing story about a mistake they made, you might hurt their feelings or shut down the conversation entirely if you blurt out "that's terrible," "why'd you do that?" or burst out laughing.
Another time to hold your tongue is if it might lead you astray or right into an argument. Say you walk into your teen's room to talk to them about their upcoming soccer game or a finals exam, but quickly start pointing out the unmade bed, dirty dishes on the side table, and wet towel on the floor, not only will your original conversation go sideways but your teen will think you're just looking to criticize.
While rules and expectations are super important and can help keep teens organized, productive, and safe, it's also important to say "yes" to what you can. Using the classic "if, then" parenting strategy can work for teens, too. So, instead of saying "no," you say "yes, if you finish your paper and clean your room, then you can go to the party."
Be flexible too, when possible, so that your teen sees you as an ally who wants to work with them, provided they follow the guidelines you can't bend. So, when they come to you to ask if they can spend the night at the friend's house with no parental supervision, you might say, "no, but they can sleepover here." Compromising, even negotiating together, can even become something to connect over.
Surprise them with a "yes" when you can. Not only will you engender goodwill, but you'll keep your teen coming to you with their requests and plans. They'll know you'll at least consider them, which can make things go better when you do need to say "no."
Pick Your Battles
We all likely remember this one from the preschool years, but the value of picking your battles holds true for teens as well. You're not going to be able to solve every issue, make every plan, or forge a deeper bond with your teen all in one talk. Instead, pick one goal (such as talking about cleaning their room, finding out about their classes, or just soliciting more than a grunt when you talk) and work on that.
Hand-in-hand with picking your battles is letting some stuff go—at least for the moment. Too much all at once can be overwhelming and frustrating for both of you. So, when your focus is on grades, skip reminding them about the importance of healthy sleep habits. Save other topics for a different conversation.
Effective Discipline Strategies
When all else fails, another strategy is to use humour to build bridges. Don't force this one and be sure to choose your openings wisely. If your attempts to make light of a situation don't land, for example, if your teen seems more annoyed or upset, be prepared to abandon your attempt to make a joke. You may even need to apologize to ensure they know you meant no offense.
However, often saying something unexpected or silly or simply laughing (be sure you're laughing with rather than at your teen) can break the tension, get your teen laughing, and often take a conversation to new depths. Even better, you may end up with some inside jokes, which often serve to strengthen the parent-teen bond.
Humour is a way to show your own vulnerability and creativity—and that you value the relationship above all else, and especially over any stressful or difficult topic or issue you might be discussing.
Share Their Interests
If you want to get your teen talking, try talking about something they like. Anything works here (from TV shows and hobbies to favorite foods or politics) as long as you put in the effort to listen and learn. You may want to google the subject to do some reconnaissance so you actually know what you're talking about, too. Say, your teen loves anime, watch some together and discuss. If they love tofu, look up recipes.
Putting in genuine effort to get to know your teen's passions, likes, and dislikes, delving into their opinions, and generally, getting at what makes them tick will naturally make them more open to chatting—and hanging out—with you. The flip side is don't force your pastimes and favorite topics on them, although it's certainly fine to share them in kind.
Talking about positive, fun passions they enjoy is also a pleasant deviation from the heavy stuff many other parent-teen conversations focus on, namely grades, behavior, friends, rules, and messes.
Tips for Difficult Conversations
The above suggestions can work for light or heavy conversations—and it might help to try different tactics as various strategies will work better in some situations than others. Plus, it's wise to start working on improving your parent-teen dialogue before you sense any problems, as then you'll have a toolbox at-the-ready.
Laying the groundwork for positive communication will especially pay off if and when any of the hard or important stuff like dating, grades, college plans, money, bullying, friends, family issues, health problems, death, or divorce comes into your lives. Most importantly, approach these topics with compassion, caring, and your best listening ear. Offer a shoulder to cry on, a cookie, or a snack, as needed, too.
Aim not to make assumptions about what your teen is thinking and also don't assume they know your point of view. Share your feelings (grief, anger, sadness, surprise, worry, and so on) so that your teen feels safe sharing theirs.
Their actions may need consequences, but be careful not to ridicule, belittle, or punish your teen for their feelings or ideas. You may have conversations where you learn things that disappoint, sadden, or anger you, but make sure they always know you're in their corner—and that you love them.
Photos source: Uplash
Positive Discipline Techniques That Really Work
When to Seek Help
If you've tried and tried to get your teen talking and are getting nowhere, it might be time to enlist reinforcements. This might be the other parent, another relative, an older sibling, a family friend, or a doctor or other mental health professional. If your teen has a great relationship with another trusted adult or teen, you can try reaching out to them to help you get the conversations flowing.
Individual or family therapy (online therapy or in person) can be greatly beneficial when negative patterns are too ingrained for conversation to flow freely. A counselor can help you reestablish a healthier bond and rebuild positive communication.