Difficult Discussions, Positive Outcomes: Improving Communication With Your Teen

Posted on October 16th, 2015


You walk into your high school junior’s room and see an e-cigarette. You overhear your middle school daughter talking about how fun it was to meet those guys in the park last Saturday night. Another parent shows you inappropriate photos your high school freshman has been posting on Instagram. How do you react? What do you say? How we respond sends important messages to our teens and sets the stage for open communication and positive outcomes.

As with most emotional situations, take some time before you respond. Although this may be difficult, do not to start the conversation with a confrontation that will put your teen on the defensive. The timing of when we confront our teens — at the very moment when we learn of the transgression or in a day — does not matter since the events are in the past and our response, more than our timing, will be crucial to a positive outcome. These situations have already occurred and when we are reactionary, we are incendiary.

Here are eight steps to help you have a productive discussion with your teen:

Step 1: Take a deep breath and an hour (or a day) to think about your response. It is also helpful to reflect on your practices when you were an adolescent. Adolescence is a time when teens experiment, make rash decisions, and do not plan ahead or think of possible negative outcomes — and then lie to escape those outcomes. As angry or upset as you are in the moment, responding immediately in anger will not serve to open ongoing communication between you and your teen.

Step 2: Put the behavior in the context of your family values. What do you want to see? What did your teen do that went against your values? What messages have you given your teen about drinking, relationships, academic expectations, curfew, and consequences? Does your teen know your beliefs — have they been made explicit? Values and expectations must be clearly shared with your child.

Step 3: Find a quiet time to meet with your teen. It could be when you’re driving somewhere (and have a captive audience), it could be after dinner if you are just sitting around the table, or offer up a study break with hot cocoa at nine or ten at night. Find a calm and comfortable spot where there will be no interruptions.

Step 4: Initially state the facts without opinion or emotion. “I saw you had an e-cigarette in your room. Can you tell me about that?” “I heard you tell your friend about the park meeting on Saturday night. How did that come about?” The more factual and less emotional you are, the greater openness you will find.

Step 5: Listen to the response, and stay focused on the situation and message you want to impart. It is not uncommon for teens to lie, “It’s not my e-cigarette; I found it.” “I never went to the park, I was talking about a TV show.” “I don’t even have an Instagram account.” Here it is critical to not get pulled into a trial to “prove” what happened. You want to be clear and on message – whether it is about smoking being unhealthy, the risks of park meetings, or the permanence of Instagram. Ignore the “white noise” of your teen’s defensiveness and evasions, while sending a consistent message that reflects your family values and expectations. “As you know, Grandpa died from lung cancer due to smoking. I know that e-cigarettes claim that they are not carcinogenic, however there is no data out yet.” “I am sure that you knew the kids you were meeting in the park and I can’t help but worry about who else they might have brought or how you could keep safe if something happened there.” Always frame your message in terms of your adolescent’s health and safety and your unconditional love for your child.

Step 6: Determine consequences, if there are any. For some teens, just having this sit-down is enough of a consequence; for others, there may need to be a tangible consequence. When thinking about consequences, remember to fit the consequences to the infraction and make sure your teen is not blindsided by them. One effective way to decide on consequences is to ask your adolescent, “What do you think would be appropriate consequences?” (FYI: Teens are almost always harder on themselves than you would be). Another strategy is to lay out consequences for the next infraction, such as “I’m really glad we were able to speak about this and now you know my expectations. If this were to happen again, I would…” And finally, make sure any consequences are enforceable.

In thinking about our examples, some natural consequences around the e-cigarettes might be to have your teen volunteer at a lung cancer ward, to give an anti-smoking presentation to younger students, or to interview a relative who has, or was a family member of someone with, lung cancer. For the park rendezvous, a weekend at home (and you can discuss whether your teen can have friends over) or the possibility of adding a “tracker” to the phone. With the Instagram posting, you can have your child show it to you, you can take the phone away for a limited time (2-4 days), you can have your teen meet with a police officer about cyber crimes or let you “follow” the account. In all instances, it is best to ask your teen for input about consequences and to be really clear about what will happen next time so the teen truly understands your expectations and values.

Step 7: Make sure that your teen understands your non-negotiables. “I want to be really clear that my expectation is that you never get in a car with someone who is drinking or if you have been drinking.” When you state a non-negotiable, you want to be able to offer alternatives and set out the consequences. “If you are in a situation where you or your driver has been drinking or smoking, you can call me and I will pick you up, no questions asked, or you can call for Über. Under no circumstances are you to get in a car with someone (including yourself) who is under the influence. The costs are too great. If you do, you will lose your car privileges and be grounded for X weeks.” Whether your non-negotiable is about family night attendance, breaking curfew, relationships, drinking, or sex, you need to be clear on your expectations, why you have those expectations, and what the consequences will be if those are broken. These conversations should not be in response to a specific incident, and you will want to have them more than once. You also want to stress honesty and let your teen know that you value honesty. If your teen tells you there will be drinking at the party, you want to acknowledge the honesty and appreciate the openness. That will encourage more openness in the future.

Step 8: MOVE ON. After the conversation, thank your teen, give him or her a hug, and let your teen know how much you appreciate the maturity and participation in the conversation. Then, let it go. You do not want to bring up the topic over and over again. Your child needs to know that it was one incident and you are not defining or judging your adolescent based on this incident. Make sure your teens are aware that you know and love all parts of them and will continue to be there to support, guide, and help them make a successful transition to adulthood.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.