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How to Talk to Your Teenager: Conversations vs. Rigid Rules

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Teens are in a constant state of growth and change—both physically and emotionally. It makes it tough for parents to set concrete rules to keep them safe. What was appropriate even a few months ago may not be the right rule for today. The solution? Learning how to talk to your teenager about what’s best for them in a continual conversation of sorts.

What does this look like? It might mean that most school nights, lights out is at 10:30 pm. But in the week where there’s a heavier than usual extra-curricular load and a research paper due, you talk to your teen about what’s going on and determine what is reasonable for this week. It could also mean that the double-date is allowable with a guy who’s a familiar friend of the family, but not with the young man you’ve never met.

Continual conversation allows you to do some important things: revisit your core beliefs together as they relate to choices your teenager faces, weigh the pros and cons of those choices, and strengthen your relationship. To maintain a good relationship with your teenagers while guiding them, you have to be more of a leader than a dictator.  Here’s the scoop on how to talk to your teenager.

1. Clarify core beliefs and values.

Good parenting is about instilling strong core beliefs in your child about the most important areas of life: who we are in God’s eyes, how we should live in light of that, how we should treat others, etc. Then they must apply those fundamental beliefs to the choices they make every day. If you’ve done a great job in the earlier years of parenting, those basic values aren’t open to debate. But if you see an area of your teen’s life where they seem to be making decisions that don’t line up with your family values, revisit the fundamentals first. For example, if your teen is pushing the boundaries in terms of intimacy with a girlfriend or boyfriend, have a conversation about the beliefs you hold related to sex—that it’s a special and designed for the safety of the marriage relationship, that taking it outside of marriage opens a person up to multiple negative consequences, etc. Simply saying “Don’t do…because I said so,” likely won’t make a difference. Getting them to talk and think about the pros and cons of it all, however, might help them make better choices each day.

2. Don’t abandon the boundaries altogether.

While the rules you set for your teenager may be more flexible and open to modification than they were in the grammar school years, don’t forego them altogether. Teens continually tell us that they still crave some protection and parenting from parents, whether they’d ever admit it or not. Sometimes “my mom and dad won’t let me” is the best way for them to get out of a bad situation they know they should avoid. It allows them to save face with peers while escaping a situation they’re not comfortable with.  Boundaries, at any age, communicate to your child that you love them and care about what happens to them—a message they crave from the cradle onward. Check out these three areas of risk where boundaries could save your teen’s life.

3. Don’t set up a fight.

Your teenager won’t willingly engage in frequent conversation with you if every conversation is a fight. Even if you suspect a problem and know that some correction is needed, try starting your conversation with an open-ended question rather than a statement or accusation. Try “Talk to me about how things are going with Chad these days…” rather than opening with, “Your dad and I think you spend too much time with your boyfriend. You can’t go over there this week,” or “We think Chad is a bad influence and want you to stop dating him.” By having the patience to draw your child into conversation on the topic of concern, you can find better, less confrontational ways to help her reach the conclusions you ultimately think are appropriate. You won’t move the mountain in one conversation. Invest in continual conversation to shape their thinking over time.

4. Remember that real conversations with your teen require you to listen as much as you speak.

Just like a good mechanic spends a great deal of time just listening to an engine to diagnose a problem, you’ll learn a great deal about whether your teen has embraced your core beliefs and how she sees the world by listening to her talk. Even if she says things that make you wince—that’s good diagnostic information. It tells you where the trouble lies and that’s the first step toward correcting the problem. Resist the urge to immediately whack her with your hammer of wisdom and truth—hold back a little. Then start back at the beginning (the core belief you hold) and work your way toward what a good choice looks like in light of that belief. Try these rules for healthy debate with your teen when there’s some disagreement about what’s best.

Dana Hall McCain writes about marriage, parenting, faith and wellness. She is a mom of two, and has been married to a wonderful guy for over 18 years.


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