Talking Through Sensitive Stuff with your Teen

Posted by on Oct 4, 2012 in All Articles, Parenting

Sensitive issues come up often with teens, as they begin to get into more “grown up” things and their sensitivity to criticism or parental “butting in” may be highly increased during this phase of development. Here, parents can broach topics with empathic sensitivity and confidence – this is the best way to get a positive response from your teen!

Use Reflective Listening

If you are concerned about a particular issue with your teen (i.e. drugs, alcohol, sex, school, curfew, etc), try to get them to talk to you about it before you go in with a speech. Aren’t we tired of being the ones talking to them?

However, often our need to have these sensitive discussions is based from a place of fear, which makes complete sense. We fear what we don’t know, and as parents, if we don’t know…we tend to go into Mamma/Papa Bear mode in order to protect our cubs – doing everything from lecturing and advice-giving, to imposing threats and harsh consequences for transgressing in a particular area. Basically, you do anything that you can do. As you may know, these gut reactions often don’t result in resolution or understanding, which is what we really want. We want to hear from our teens and we want issues, and our consciences, to be settled.

Instead, try using reflective listening techniques of reflecting feelings (you feel/seem…), paraphrasing (summarizing content), and asking open-ended questions (avoiding “why” questions, too) in order to really understand the perspectives and thoughts of your teen. This will encourage your child to a) feel understood, and b) tell you what he or she already knows about your area of inquiry.

Also, self-reflect on why you want to talk about a certain issue with your teen and find out if this is really an issue. If you are concerned about how your teen stays safe when out late with friends, ask them to tell you what they think the risks are and what they do to make sure they stay safe. If they already know how to minimize risk and are avid practicers of it, you need not go into your own monologue of the importance of safety and the dangers of the streets at night. If they don’t, use “I-statements” to express your concern and engage them in brainstorming ideas for solution. For example, “I love you and I’m worried that something could happen to you. What could you start doing to protect yourself from being drugged/mugged/ attacked/etc… when you’re out late with friends?” This lets your teen know what’s going on for you in a way that is non-threatening and invites them to share their thoughts and feelings. If both of you can share, the result is gaining a mutual understanding of each other’s opinions and thoughts. These are discussions that will help put your mind at rest, and your teen will feel good and be willing to enter into future conversations.

Win-Win Problem Solving

If there is an issue to discuss beyond understanding each other’s perspectives and opinions, go to using win-win problem solving. If you have used reflective listening to achieve mutual understanding, you may be ready to begin brainstorming solutions or agreements with your teen. If not, ensure to do this. Exploring the underlying interests (i.e. needs, wants, fears) of each person’s position (i.e. Teen: “I’m going to the party” Parent: “Oh no you’re not”) MUST happen in order to move into brainstorming solutions. If one or both are not feeling heard/understood, they won’t want to cooperate with the other on reaching an agreement.

Once an agreement is made in which you both agree to commit, discuss with your teen what he/she thinks the consequence should be of not following through with this agreement. At this stage of the problem-solving process, you may be surprised to hear how strict your teens may be on themselves. You may even get to convince them to soften up on the consequence. Not only does this reinforce that you are working with and for them, but it also helps to set them up for success. For example, is it realistic that they will actually comply with their suggested consequence of no parties for a year if they come home late from this one? By setting up realistic consequences, you help avoid conflict around the consequence agreed upon (i.e. if the teen did not uphold the agreement).

Another (and possibly the best) way to have your teen buy into the process of win-win problem solving with you is to explore this process when they have a problem with you. If they don’t like that you listen in on their phone conversations or read their text messages for example, you may go through the steps of exploring each person’s underlying interests (concerns/fears/needs) through reflective listening and then come up with an agreement that involves both of your commitments to each other and thus, consequences for both your teen and you if the agreement is not followed.

Setting Limits Around Safety

If your teen is unwilling to engage despite your efforts at reflective listening and win-win problem solving, do not give up. Continue to reflect, paraphrase and use open-ended questions with your teen to communicate your desire to understand and connect with them. After all, effective parenting is about relationship.

However, sometimes the refusal to engage in a topic of conversation will still require action on part of the parent in order to ensure safety and structure, as well as to let your child know what they can expect from you. In these cases, be democratic by using both firmness and kindness:

  • Express where your actions are coming from. Help your child understand this isn’t about being their enemy or against them.
  • Be clear with what you will and will not accept. Use specifics so that your child can understand where your boundaries are being crossed and where you might have some common ground.
  • Inform them of what will happen in certain circumstances. Let your child know how you will respond to the situation if your boundaries or tolerance for risk are crossed.
  • Do what you say you are going to do. There is no sense in setting a limit if you are not going to be able or do not intend to follow through with the consequence.

For example, if your teen is leaving the house without telling you when he/she will return and stays out past curfew, you may:

  • Explain that you fear for their safety when you don’t know when to expect them home or what they are out doing.
  • Tell them you are OK with them going out and having some privacy. Tell them you are not OK with not knowing when they will be back because you wonder whether they are safe, on-time, late, in danger, etc.
  • You may offer that they will not have a “consequence” from you for leaving or even coming home past what you think should be their curfew. However, you may let them know that if they leave without informing you of where they are and are not home within a certain time span, that you will call their cell phone, friend, or even the police in order to maintain your parental responsibility for their wellbeing.

Setting these limits does not ensure your child’s cooperation or compliance with them, but it may help your teen to see where you are coming from and also give you some peace of mind in knowing what you are going do if a given situation arises. Remember, you can’t force anyone to change (especially your teenaged child!); you can only change yourself and decide for yourself how you want to respond to various issues with your teen.

NOTE: This is not the only or right way to handle this particular issue. You have to decide what you are comfortable with as a parent and consider how your child may respond to the limits you are setting. 

Erin Edwards, MA, CCC

Platinum Counselling Group