Tips for Authentic Conversations
Raising a teenager is no easy feat! As teens grow and mature, solid and effective communication between parents and teens becomes increasingly important.
It’s no secret that engaging in meaningful, authentic conversations with our teens can help build trust, understanding, and a strong bond between us and our children. But that’s much easier said than done when our conversational attempts are often met with grunts, eye rolls, shrugs, or arguments.
Here are 5 practical tips for parents looking to move beyond sarcasm, movie quotes, and sharing Instagram reels with your teens to help you engage in more frequent, authentic conversations:
1. Pick The Right Moment
If you have a teenager at home, chances are you’re familiar with this scene.
To a parent who has to get up early for work – or who struggles to stay awake to even watch TV past 8 p.m. – it can seem like cruel irony that your teenager only wants to talk with you after 10 p.m. (or later!).
It may help to know that there are actually biological reasons—namely, puberty and their ongoing hormonal and developmental changes–for this late-night chatting. “During adolescence, kids turn into night owls,” one adolescent psychologist explains. “Their circadian rhythms adjust, causing them to get sleepy only later at night.”
Our three teenagers have shared they crave conversation later in the evening because they’ve had a chance to come down from their day, have fewer distractions, and have more mental capacity for conversations that need to be given a little more thought & attention.
Sometimes, that means adjusting our schedules, taking a quick post-dinner nap, or mentally preparing ourselves for a slightly sleep-deprived morning to allow for the flexibility of a late-night chat.
Whether your teen prefers bedtime conversation or is an early morning chatter (I’ve been told such a rare thing does exist!), choosing a moment when your teen is in a good place mentally and physically will help you engage in more honest conversations with them.
2. Be Fully Present
One of the best ways to build meaningful relationships with teens is to demonstrate that we are listening and interested in what they say by being fully present and giving our undivided attention.
Be Physically Present
- Let them see you turn off or silence your phone, make eye contact, and turn toward your teen.
- Have conversations in a physical location that helps you avoid distractions
- Avoid interrupting or jumping to conclusions.
I’ve shared that our kids have expressed frustration at how much time their father and I spend on our phones. We’re working on the distraction they cause during family time, but we have work to do, as evidenced by this video my 18-year-old son sent me a few weeks ago with the comment, “It’s you!”
Be Mentally Present
- Do your best to put aside distractions.
- Practice active listening skills like reflecting back on what they’ve said to ensure you understand their perspective.
- Be uninterruptible during important conversations.
When asking our daughter about a time she felt she had my undivided attention, she recalled a time when she had been telling me about some struggles she was having with a friend. Her younger brother came into the room to ask me for something, and I told him, “Can you wait a few minutes? I’m talking to your sister right now.” I don’t remember the interaction, but the fact that I was willing to make her a priority for my attention was meaningful to my teenage daughter.
Be Emotionally Present
- Notice the emotions your teen is feeling as they share – even emotions they may be trying to hide.
- Let your teen see the emotions their sharing brings up in you.
- Tell them what you’re feeling by saying, “I’m getting emotional because it reminds me of …a time when I felt betrayed by a friend / … a bad breakup I went through in high school / … how angry I got at a teacher once.”
If your teen sees you getting emotional without clarification, they may assume you’re upset at them instead of upset for them. Being emotionally present and showing empathy validates your teen’s feelings and experiences and teaches them what healthy emotional regulation can look like.
3. Listen more. Talk less. (Even less. Nope, still less than that.)
When communicating with my teenagers, I wasn’t even aware of how quickly I went from listening to lecturing. Then, my youngest son started texting me this meme each time it happened:
It was certainly effective in helping me realize how often I was jumping in with my opinions and solutions instead of just listening to them.
Work on giving your teenager the time and space to express themselves fully without interrupting. Allow them to finish their thoughts and encourage them to elaborate if needed. It helps to ask open-ended questions to see if they have more to share.
When you disagree with your teenager’s perspective, opinion, or the conclusions they’ve reached about a particular situation, it can be helpful to reflect back what they have shared before moving on to your thoughts. Use phrases like, “It sounds like you’re feeling…” or “I can see why that would be important to you.” Even if you can’t validate their opinions or actions, you can often validate their emotions and let them know you understand their perspective. Then, ask if they’d like to know your thoughts before sharing.
4. Know When to Back Off
Recently, my daughter came home from school less reticent than usual. “Mom. I’ve got all the tea on the big fight yesterday,” she said as she launched into a story about who said what to whom and how it started a huge fight among a particular group of peers. We processed the incident and discussed how it impacted her and a few of her friends. I left the conversation feeling like we’d had a moment of real connection.
When she got home from school the next day, I asked, “How’d everything go between [two of the kids involved] at lunch today?”
“What? Ugh. Fine. Don’t wanna talk ‘bout it,” she mumbled.
I wanted more details. I wanted to know more about how my daughter felt and how her friends treated each other in the aftermath. I wanted to ensure she wasn’t taking on too much responsibility for resolving tension among her friends. I wanted to keep building on our positive connection from the day before. But pushing in that moment would have had the opposite effect. It was an important lesson for me in knowing when it’s time to let go and move on.
Pay attention to your teenager’s non-verbal cues during the conversation. If they appear visibly frustrated, disinterested, or agitated, it may be a sign that they need some space. Give them time to process their emotions and revisit the topic when they are more receptive. Let them know it’s OK to take a break from conversations and that you are still open to talking again later if they want.
Stepping back from a conversation does not mean avoiding the topic entirely. It means recognizing the need for a pause and creating a more suitable environment for productive communication in the future. Respecting your teenager’s boundaries and timing can lead to a healthier, more trusting parent-teen relationship.
5. Recognize the Way Your Teen is Changing
Every parent of teens I’ve known had a moment where they’ve looked at their son or daughter and thought with bewilderment, “Who IS this person? Where is my sweet child? What has happened?”
Teenagers are going through a period of immense growth and self-discovery. They’re exploring who they are and learning who they want to become. They sometimes seem to try on different personalities, friend groups, hobbies, or interests with dizzying speed. Take some time to get to know the person your teenager is today. Ask open-ended questions about their hobbies, activities, and passions. Learn more about their favorite music, books, sports, or hobbies.
One dad of two teen daughters I know is a professional musician who loves classic rock music and can play classical piano. When his girls got swept up in the K-Pop music world, he was irritated and confused. “It’s plastic music for plastic people,” he once said. But he took the time to talk to his daughters about what exactly they liked about the music with an open mind. Then, not only did he surprise his oldest daughter with tickets to a K-Pop concert for her birthday, he agreed to take her and her two friends to the concert. Although it’s still not the kind of music he’d ever choose to listen to on his own, he was willing to enter into their world and use it to get to know his daughters just a little bit better.
Engaging in conversations about their interests and participating in activities your teenager enjoys – even if they may not align with your personal preferences – is a great way to build a foundation of trust and common ground to help you have more authentic and meaningful conversations. Be open to their changing interests, values, and identity. Allow them the space to grow and explore who they are becoming while providing a supportive presence.
Building a connection with your teenager takes time and patience, but it is worth it to keep open the lines of communication and to strengthen your bond with your teenager – a bond that forms the foundation of the relationship you’ll have with them as an adult.