Conversations with teenagers: the everyday stuff

We all have memories of our teenage years.  Those awkward chats with parents about things you’d much rather not discuss; and the times when you wished you could discuss something more openly with them.  Watching how they functioned as adults and wanting to know more of how they did it. 

A big piece of the function of adolescence is to develop your own identity,  to be comfortable in your own skin as you show up in the world.  This means separating from your parents, sometimes seeing things differently from the way they have taught you and , at times, taking such a strong stand that it can lead to a disagreement or an argument.  

As a parent you may find that the teenage years can be quite challenging.  The small and adorable child has disappeared, replaced by a large, somewhat moody individual who now has to be reminded of expectations that used to be commonplace.  Times they are a changing.

Easy chat has somehow disappeared and they no longer wish to hear your opinions, especially when it doesn’t agree with theirs.  But there are still glimpses of that wonderful child and occasional wistful comments, interesting questions and random hugs that remind you how worthwhile parenting an adolescent can be.  

Balancing self care with a busy family life, work demands and still maintaining significant relationships and friendships is a daily juggle which often leaves me short of time and wondering how I’m going to fit it all in and where the energy is going to come from.  The day to day juggle is hard work and it’s easy to focus on the next job of the day in a constant whirl of activity from morning to night.  

Little wonder then that time for deep and meaningful conversations with our teenagers is just not at our fingertips, much less is the inclination or the closeness that getting into deep conversations requires.  It’s not like sitting down with a girl friend and instantly getting to the heart of the thing that is bothering you.  You don’t have that same wavelength vibe going on for a number of reasons, all very valid too.  A conversation like that just wouldn’t be appropriate or right on so many levels.  

But a close, connected relationship with your teenager would be awesome.  So, how do we get there?

Everyday stuff

The things that matter happen under our noses without us even realising it.  You will struggle to have a close relationship with your teenager if the main focus of your everyday conversations are around rules, reminders and criticisms.  Is that you?  Or are you plain and simply not available because something outside of the family is your focus?  Have a think about the main themes and tones of your conversations.  Do they support and encourage your teenager?  Or are they full of phrases that start with  “You should …. “ or “You need to …” or “Will you …. NOW”  Or are there big empty silences that stretch on endlessly?  There will be a need (and at times strictly) to reinforce house rules and give reminders of behavioural expectations and follow through with consequences.  And this is essentially important.  Adolescents need boundaries.  They also need consistent loving and a parent they can engage with on a level that challenges and grows their thoughts about life.  Understatement of the year: it’s a big job!

Your teenager is not an adult yet.  The type of adult they will become largely depends on the parent you are being.  Just as you remember back to the way you were parented, your teenagers will in their turn base their parenting on the way you are parenting them right now.  Is that a scary thought?  Or something you can be proud of?  If there is a crisis with your teenager how well prepared is your relationship to be able to work through it side by side with them?  Or would you be the parent who loses the plot, launching into a tirade of all their sins and blaming their misbehaviour on the sins of their other parent or one of your parents?  Or the parent that retreats into themselves, recognising too late that their base is too narrow and their own mental health and wellbeing is becoming eroded. 

If you recognise that there are improvements you can make I congratulate you for wanting to be the parent and the person who is determined to show up - for yourself and for your teenager.

Day to day communication

All of these check ins need to happen daily, with genuine love and connection:

“Good morning”

“Good night”

“How was your day?”

“How are you?”

Make an effort to show your teenager they are important with these daily, consistent check ins that are delivered with lightness and love.  That means looking them in the eye 90% of the time, as opposed to calling out over your shoulder as you do something else.  Whenever it’s possible, accompany your verbal comment with a hug, a touch, a smile or a gesture of affection.  Let them see your genuine love for them that is so easily buried under the busyness of life.  When you have more than one teenager this also becomes a challenge; make it your business to touch base properly with every teenager every day.

Engage in the language of touch.

In passing pause and rub their shoulder or the top of their back, ruffle their hair or have a high 5.  You will know what is comfortable for your teenager.  Not everyone is ‘huggy’ so make sure you respect their personal preferences.  And while light touch might be appropriate in your home, it may just embarrass them in public so be aware.

Do things together

What makes your family unique?  Dinnertime conversations, laughter, routines, family activities, expectations and boundaries.  Some of these routines may have been going since childhood and are no longer appropriate, or they may be completely new.  Just because you haven’t done them before doesn’t mean it’s not time for a new family tradition.  If you feel like the daily flow isn’t working for your family then change it.  The blessing of tweens and teens is that this is a perfect opportunity for their input.  Ask them what they like about their family and their home, what they don’t like and if there’s anything that they’d like to see changed.  Open a discussion and see what comes out of it.  I don’t mean simply agreeing to their ideas of ice cream for breakfast and keeping their phones in their rooms (some things are non negotiable and that’s your call as the parent and bill payer).  However their input is brilliant and they’d love to be involved.  So get all the ideas out, down on paper if you like, and talk with them about how they’d see that working for everyone.  In some ways it’s a bit like negotiating the rules for a flat (when they fully wouldn’t expect to get everything going their way) so bringing them in on a discussion like this is such a growth opportunity for them.  

Things can take a while to work out and especially if this is a new activity in your household, don’t expect to make it all happen at once.  Discussion back and forth over a number of days is perfectly fine.  Now would be a good time to take notes though so everyone can remember where they’re all up to.  

If you’ve started things and they’re important but getting heated then call a short break.  Ask how long everyone will need to cool down before the discussion can continue.  With a focus on ‘Our family is important’ keep the discussion in line and appropriate so it is useful.  

Driving in the car

But obviously not while you’re giving them a driving lesson …  Car time is the perfect opportunity to have a great conversation.  You’re in a confined space so you can hear each other easily but the sometimes uncomfortable eye contact pressure is off.  If possible be side by side instead of front seat/back seat and any devices need to be off.  Establish the “What’s said in the car stays in the car” rule.  You may use this time to check in in a more in-depth manner with questions like “What’s the best thing about your week?” as openers.  Be prepared to share your answers too as you get your teenager used to chatting back and forth.  Keep it as relaxed as possible, after all you’re driving, but if it’s appropriate you can always stop for a hot chocolate or a walk.  Again, if there are other family members (or friends) in the car keep it appropriate and lighter.

Text, messenger & notes

Will work if they’re already established forms of communication used for positive things.  If you pop up in their feed on a regular basis telling them they’re special and you love them and you hope they’re having a good day then you may find these non verbal forms of communication a great way of communicating with your teenager.  The huge advantage is that you both have time to think about and craft replies.  If a crisis has hit with your teenager, don’t expect these to be useful if they’re not already being used.  You will need to start popping up regularly to build a habit and trust so expect to invest in 1 - 3 months of work at a lighter level first.  If you were wondering, now is a great time to start.  Don’t wait.  

Make time

It’s funny how dinner prep and cooking time is often a time to have a teenager pop up at your elbow for a random chat.  If it’s possible to stop then please do.  Put down the noodles, it’s not about you.  This is the best possible time to access a thought that’s on top for your child so even if it means dinner will be five minutes later than anticipated take the time to stop what you are doing and chat.  

If you really don’t have the time to stop then give them a hug and make a time to chat with them after dinner.  And keep that time.  Building trust is so crucial and important.  Unfortunately the thought may have been worked through already and lost its urgency at that later time but still properly check in.  

Sometimes it just feels like I have to take a step backwards to go forwards.  When the going gets rough I just have to let stuff go in order to move forwards.  That’s called effective parenting.  Stake your priorities and run with them. 

Have quality time

Make your interactions count.  It’s not very effective to devote 30 minutes ‘hanging out’ with your teenager when you’ve got a million other things to do.  If you want to ‘hang out’ then great.  But be present while you’re doing it.  Listen to them and share the love.  Otherwise don’t bother.  Less can be more when the quality of less is high.  Support your child with strength and love.  Be aware, be proactive, be value based, be authentic.

Be a good listener

We have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason.  So much of the stuff we say is about us.  And it’s not helpful.  Begin the habit of letting your teenager work out their problems themselves, with you there as their supporter.