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5 Secrets for Communicating
with Teenagers

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
5 Secrets for Communicating with Teenagers

Does this sound familiar? Your teenage son is taking forever in the bathroom (again), but you need him to get ready so you can get to work on time. You’re thinking, “How could I have raised such an inconsiderate kid? He’s so disrespectful!” Meanwhile, your child is locked in the bathroom, consumed with his image in the mirror. He’s thinking, “No way am I going to school with this pimple on my nose.” Outside in the hallway, you start pounding on the door, yelling at him to hurry up. He screams, “God, you just don’t understand! Leave me alone!” When he finally emerges, he gives you the silent treatment. Not only that, he’s missed the bus, so you have to drive him to school. You end up late for work and completely overwhelmed, wondering, “Why doesn’t my kid listen to me? Does he have to fight me on everything?”

Distance and explosiveness are often the only ways your teen knows how to communicate when things get intense—which of course only causes more conflict.

You and your teen: two different worlds, two different perspectives—and a giant disconnect that can make communicating a real mystery. As a therapist and the mother of three teenagers myself, I know firsthand that the more you push your kids, the more they get defensive and dig in their heels; they become reactive in the form of explosiveness or shutting down. And they’re thinking, “My parents don’t have a clue, so what’s the point of trying to explain myself? I’ll just tune them out.” Clamming up or exploding are both ways your teenagers attempt to manage their stress and defend themselves. That’s because distance and explosiveness are often the only ways your teen knows how to communicate when things get intense—which of course only causes more conflict.

Related: Can't get your child to listen to you?

Here are 5 secrets that I’ve found to be really helpful personally for communicating with kids through the difficult adolescent years.

1. The secret to opening your child’s ears: Here’s a simple secret that will help you in everything you do with your teen: No matter how hard it might be, try to start all interactions with your child with understanding, even if you don’t fully agree or even quite comprehend what they're talking about. Here’s an example: Your teenage daughter is not doing her schoolwork, and instead is online with friends chatting. It drives you crazy because you’re thinking, “If she fails another test, her average will go down and she’ll never get into college. What kind of future will she have?” Your teen, on the other hand is thinking, “I have to get online and talk with Skyler. If we don’t make up after the fight we had in the hall today, all the other girls will be against me and I’ll have no one to hang out with at school tomorrow.” Again, two different worlds. Try to start by saying, “I understand how difficult it is for you when you have a fight with one of your friends. I also know that you need to pass this test tomorrow. Schoolwork is your job and it's your responsibility to do it to the best of your abilities. Let’s sit down and think of a good way you can manage your time tonight.” Be sure not to say "I understand, but..." which will simply disqualify what you've just said. Start from a place of understanding, and try to put yourself in your child’s shoes first before telling her what needs to change. I’ve found that doing this tends to “open kids’ ears.” Instead of feeling like they have to defend themselves against you, they actually listen.

2. Take the emotionality out of the equation. Emotion is your enemy when you’re trying to get through to your teen. Remind yourself that what he says and does is not a reflection on you. You may not like how he’s behaving—or even how he’s thinking—but keep your emotions out of it, even if his behavior impacts you. I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do; it’s tough, but it’s a skill you can learn just like any other. In fact, I tell parents to repeat this slogan to themselves before talking to their kids: “This is just like a business transaction; it’s nothing personal.” When you really think about it, there’s no reason to be mad at your child for being himself. He may be making a poor choice, but the truth is, he might not yet have the skill set to make a better one. So your job is to help guide him to better choices so he can in turn develop a better skill set. When you realize what your job is as a parent, it will help you be less emotional. When you feel frustrated, remember, don’t take it personally. Tell yourself that this is simply a problem to solve, and part of “parenting business as usual.”

Related: Learn the secret to getting your child to behave.

3. Ask curious questions…not loaded questions. Ask your teen for his ideas and be collaborative. Let him see that you believe in him and that you’re not mad at him for struggling in his life. When you let him see that you have faith in his abilities and he has the space to work things out on his own, you will begin to develop true confidence in him. Don’t ask loaded questions that put your child on the defensive like, “Why can’t you get up on time? What’s wrong with you?” Instead, try opening a conversation with, “Eli, do you have any ideas for how you might get up on time?” If he says he doesn’t know, offer a few of your own and ask which one would work for him. Let your teen know that his problems are his to solve. Don’t step into his “box.” Rather, you are there to help him figure out solutions—and to let him deal with the natural consequences of his behavior.

Your goal is to help your child think for himself, which will in turn help him feel like he has some control over his world. Listen openly to what he says and ask him to think critically about each choice. What will work and what will be problematic about each decision? What would be the natural consequences of each choice—and how would he feel about dealing with that?

4. Don’t be needy; stand on your own two feet. Don’t “need” your teen’s cooperation, validation, or good behavior. As soon as you need something from your child so that you can feel better, you have put yourself in a vulnerable position because he does not have to give it to you. When you need something and don’t get it, you will naturally try harder by controlling and manipulating more. And your teen will become more and more defiant or passively compliant—neither of which is good.

The truth is, you don’t need anyone else to prop you up. You can validate yourself and solve your own problems. So if your child is acting out, that’s his problem. Your problem is to decide how you will choose to behave toward him. That’s in your hands, not his. Ask yourself, “How do I want to act, no matter how he is acting? What can I put up with and what can’t I?” Take back your power and say to yourself, “If my child is screaming at me, instead of needing him to stop, I can turn around and walk away and not engage.” Let him know you won’t talk with him until he can approach you with civility. Here’s the truth: when you aren’t trying to get your child to change or shape up, you will be able to think of better choices for yourself. And your child will be less defiant because he will have no one to resist. When you’re not trying to control him and you’re not reacting to him, he will have to wrestle with himself rather than with you. 

Related: Trapped in a power struggle with your child?

5. Don’t do anything until you're both calm. Another rule of thumb is to avoid doing anything until you and your child have both calmed down. The fact is, you don’t have to respond to your child when you are upset, or when your child is upset and in your face. You just don’t. You can say nothing. You can take a few minutes or more if you need to. When emotions have evened out, you can sit down and talk with him. It’s never good to try to bring up a difficult subject or resolve a conflict in the heat of the moment. So if either you or your child is upset, pause and come back when you can address things in a calmer way.

Related: Can't get through to your child?

If you attempt a conversation with your child and he’s rude or out of line, that’s when you have to hold on to yourself and make sure you don’t get dragged into a fight. If your relationship with your child is such that it’s impossible to have an open, respectful conversation at this point in time, remember that it’s still your job to stay firmly planted. Have a slogan that you say to yourself like, “I’m not going there no matter what.” If you can do that consistently, over time the baiting and antagonism should calm down. And don’t feel badly if you get pulled back in occasionally—staying strong isn’t easy. The good news is that the more you refuse to engage, the easier it will get to stay calm.

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.


Thank you for bringing this up because it's right where I'm at right now. A few years ago, I had many serious struggles with my son. This program was a great help then. Now, my son is a senior who is doing well and keeping busy with positive activities. But the smaller issues can still grate on me, and because he's so busy now, communication can be a problem. So the article is timely for me,thanks!

Comment By : lisama59

have we met? This is my son and those are my issues! I am in "it" as well, and this is ruining our family. All of us are affected by this conflict that we have. It is so hard to not get caught up in the drama. I need more articles like this. I just have an issue with the use of the word child when dealing with the teens.. yes he is my child, but he isn't childlike anymore. These issues are real and causing very difficult situations. It's hard to walk away when he is yelling back and volatile, when I just want to resolve the issue we are dealing with. I know it's normal behavior to separate from the parents, but I still need the respect, and want compliance with simple reasonable requests.

Comment By : momotwins

It i our role as parents to help our teenage to appreciate their bodies.parents need not to be shy when talking to their children about the changes they have to undergo through.we need to promote reproductive health education otherwise our adolescent will end up making wrong decission.

Comment By : mwinisky

This is definitely my daughter....but she also has issues with anger that manifest themselves when she is upset...she breaks things....any advice?

Comment By : mousesmom

* Dear ‘mousesmom’: Thank you for your question. It would be helpful for you to talk with your daughter about what happens when she gets angry. Let her know this behavior is not okay and it won’t solve her problem. Then, ask her what she will do differently next time she is angry to calm herself down. Let her know you will remind her one time to use this new plan next time you see her getting angry. If she tries to calm herself down, she can earn a little something extra later (extra computer time, later bedtime for example) If she doesn’t try, there will be a consequence. Make sure that is clear to her ahead of time. Once you do remind her of this in the heat of the moment, disconnect and take yourself out of the equation. If she does end up breaking something despite your coaching, hold her accountable by restricting a privilege until she repairs or replaces the item. Unless it’s something of her own- that’s a natural consequence—she can earn the money to pay for a replacement when she chooses. Take a look at this article for more information on what to do when your child is having a meltdown: Managing the Meltdown. I hope this helps.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

So EASY to remember when NOT in the "heat-of-the-moment" -- therefore, like a GREAT ACTOR memorizes ALL His/Her lines BEFORE opening night, it might be great for Parent to replay and rehearse ALL THIS good advice before the actual teen-tsunamie hits town. Yes? Thanks for any feedback you wish to pour this way.

Comment By : Gregg Oreo

I need more helpful hints and possibly counseling. Where can I get more info? fast!

Comment By : Ylondra

* Dear ‘Ylondra’: For more helpful hints, please feel free to continue to browse and search through the articles here on EP. To find counseling and other forms of support in your local area, try visiting, an information and referral website run by the United Way. Whatever it is you’re facing, I hope you get the support you need to see some changes soon.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

my 14 yr old ADHD & ODD daughter will not discuss anything with us. Whenever she is calm and I bring something up she totally shuts down the conversation. She gets angry and yells for me to stop. This happens whenever I bring up completing homework, doing chores, being respectful or anything that needs changing on her part, she goes into a rage and won't discuss anything. Most times this happens in the car to or from school. She is attending a private school and unfortunately I have to drive her. Many what would be pleasant car rides and one-on-one uninterupted car rides end up being miserable because she really goes at me. I usually shut up and stop talking. I've taken away her radio priviledge and she will just scream at me. She is an extremely smart girl who throws away any chance at a college scholarship by her laziness when it comes to doing her homework. Weve removed priviledges at home for bad grades. She works hard for a few weeks to get her grades up so we reinstate the privileges then they cycle starts all over again. I feel like I'm giving in when she flips out and yells for me to stop talking about whatever it is that needs to be discussed. I've tried talking about many other things in the car, and somehow she always ends up fighting me on something. At home when she goes at me I tell her I'm not discussing it when she's agry and leave the room, but in the car I have no where to go. What solution can i use in such a small space?

Comment By : quietmom

* Dear ‘quietmom’: It sounds like you certainly have a lot going on. You are right on target when you describe telling your daughter you won’t discuss something when she’s angry and walking away. It’s important to remember that you cannot control your daughter; you can only control yourself and how you respond to her. What we tell parents to do in the car is to say exactly what you say at home and then stop responding to your daughter. Focus instead on the road ahead and on driving safely. If you find it too difficult to drive, and if it is safe to do so, pull over to the side of the road and tell her that you cannot drive safely while she is yelling at you, and when she calms down you will get back on the road. It might also help to avoid known “triggers” in the car, such as talking about her school performance. Try to limit the conversation to topics that are less provocative for her until you get home where you can go into another room and close the door if needed.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Our son is 12 and is ADHD. He has a 17 year old sister that is getting to go to college. As with most Freshmen, she will be living on campus. He is having a difficult time adjusting to the fact that she is going to be gone soon and that his grades are not better than hers. He has gotten into some trouble at school because of temper melt downs and has put us in a place that we have to do something. He is not a defiant child and he is not rude, he just is having problems handling his emotions. I am afraid I do not know how to explain things to him to make him understand that this is just his sister's next step and he will soon be following her. How can I help him gain control over himself and maintain his good reputation and standing at school?

Comment By : Concernedmama

* Dear ‘Concernedmama’: It sounds like this has been a very challenging issue for you. Transitions like this can be really tough for kids. In order to help your son manage his emotions about it when he is at school, the first step is to sit down with him and talk about the problem in more detail. Ask him some “what” questions to explore the problem behind his behavior. For example, you might say, “What were you thinking right before you _______?” and fill in the blank with whatever the most recent behavior was that got him in trouble at school. This will help to make sure you are on the right track in your assessment of the problem. Then you can reiterate your expectations and the rules of the classroom and ask your son what he can do differently next time he is thinking or feeling this way to help himself calm down. It might be helpful to talk to the teacher first to get an idea of what types of activities would be acceptable for the classroom or school environment first. Once you have a plan for how he can calm down at school, let the teacher know of the plan and suggest that she remind him if he seems to start to escalate. Let the school give any consequences they have if he does not try to calm himself down. Offer a daily incentive at home for your son to practice this new plan at school. Continue to revisit the issue if you don’t see an improvement in a few days—problem solving is often a process that requires some trial and error at first. Good luck and hang in there.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Our son is 20 years old. There are a number of problems we have with him. For the last 2 and 1/2 years he has led a life style which removed him from us and from his studies. He treats our home like a hotel, he does not eat with us on any night of the weeek since he comes home late. He has failed year after year (2 and 1/2 years) at university and has not learned from this experience. He continues not to go to lectures, gets doctors' cerficates when he has tests, I wonder, why since he makes no attempt to try and catch up or improve his performance. He comes home every night of the week late after 1am. When we try to talk to him he shuts us out. His sister who is 6 years older than him has also tried to talk to him but he does not listen. He uses bad language towards us as well as when he is speaking to his friends on the phone. He can also get violent if we insist on talking. He leaves at home and we do not want him to move out. We would like him to get his priorities right and be more considerate of the other members of the family. We know that the group of friends he has now are not a good influence but he thinks the world of them. We also fear what he does with them. Although he was at times in trouble while he was in high school, he was a very good student. His results at the end of year 12 were very good. THis may have been because of the support, encouragement and push he had at home.

Comment By : Rosie

My 17 yr old daughter is a great student and most part good kid, however she has a boyfriend she doesnt know if she wants to stay with and I hate that she is stringing him along. He is crazy about her and I feel she is being mean by not letting him go. We get into many fights about this and I am at my ends on what to do. He is a great guy and I hate seeing what she is doing to him.

Comment By : benny

* To Benny: I can tell your daughter’s indecisiveness with her boyfriend is really pushing some buttons for you. I am reminded, though, of Debbie’s concept of boxes. You have your box, and your daughter has hers. How she decides to deal with her indecisiveness in this relationship is in her box—this means she gets to decide whether to stay with him and “string him along” or not, not you. Your feelings about it belong in your box. That means that you are responsible for taking care of your feelings about this, not her. Debbie suggests that the most effective thing to do here is to stay in your own box and take care of yourself. When you’re feeling upset with your daughter over this, do something to help yourself feel better or sit with your thoughts and ask yourself where this is coming from. This is not to say that you cannot offer your daughter advice but do so once and then focus on you. Continuing to try to get your daughter do what you think she should do here is not going to be effective. Someone here needs to step out of this power struggle and you are in the best position to do that. Here is another article by Debbie Pincus which I think you will find helpful: Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My husband lost his control with our 17 yr old daughter.They said things and threw things,no one got hit.I have never seen this side of either of them.We talked after but i am not sure things will be ok??

Comment By : MamaG

* To ‘MamaG’: This must have been a really tough event for you. I imagine you felt caught in the middle, which never feels good. At this point we would recommend talking with your husband about this to come up with a plan for what the two of you will do differently next time. We do suggest that when things are escalating, the parents walk away, take some space and time to themselves, and calm down before re-engaging with the child. Once the two of you have a plan, talk to your daughter and help her come up with a plan for what she will do differently as well. We call this problem solving and you can read more about it here: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems." You might also want to check out this article about what to do after a fight with your child: Fighting with Your Teen? What to Do After the Blowout. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

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Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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