Expert Advice

How to keep the lines of communication open with your teenager

Dr Anna Martin, author of Stop, Think, Engage, shares how to keep the conversations going with your teen.

Be their safe space

Teenagers need to know that their parents are always there regardless and parents need to make sure the teenagers know they can come to them and discuss anything, so that it's a safe environment to own a mistake. It's really important for teenagers to feel they're the ones driving the process, so use open questions like, "I've noticed just recently you seem a bit different, your mood seems to be a bit low. Is there anything going on? Is there anything I can help you with?"

It's important for teenagers to know it's okay to be imperfect and it's really a part of growing up. Provide a warm, safe environment for teenagers to say, "Actually this happened and I just don't know how to deal with it." Teenagers are going to close down as soon as they believe their parents are going to be punitive.

Be kind

It's really important for the parent to listen and acknowledge: "I heard you say you're struggling with x, and I can see that must be hard for you."

Acknowledge and empathise before you provide any solutions. Never criticise. Sometimes we come at it from fear because we're worried we're not doing a good enough job.

We're hoping that teenagers are going to get their education and set themselves up for their life. So often parents are pre-using critical judgement where they'll say something like, "You're not going to get into university with those grades; you need to study harder," and teenagers are going to hear that as a criticism.

When parents are critical, their children are more likely to be self-critical.

Handling anxiety

There's a lot of research that suggests self-compassion reduces anxiety and depression far more than building self-esteem.

With self-compassion you're going, "Give it a go, try, and if you fail you're still being compassionate towards yourself".

You're helping your children learn that they're not just their attainments or their achievements. If they're feeling particularly anxious about one thing, it's really important that parents help children recognise that one thing they're struggling with doesn't make who they are; there are so many more parts to them. Let children know that they can see all of themselves as opposed to just their successes and failures.

Foster self-compassion

Parents need to look at how they can help their children have self-compassion by being understanding in their approach.

If their child makes a mistake, don't be critical of it; use it as a learning point: "Gosh, I see that that happened. How can we make it different next time? It's totally okay that you made this mistake and it's normal."

Normalise difficult and challenging emotions so that children get to know that actually being anxious is okay. Being a little bit down sometimes is okay, it's all normal, and everyone experiences it. When you make it abnormal and you expect perfection, then it just puts too much pressure on children.

Trust your teens

Parents are more involved in their teenager's development than they realise. And parents have actually already formed an unconscious opinion before they've even interacted with their teen, so they need to be very aware of their own beliefs first and foremost.

For example, their teenager comes home 20 minutes past their curfew. Because of patterned communication which they've established right from birth with that child, the parent will have already formed an opinion of what occurred and will no doubt be critical of their child.

So when anything happens, ask first: "Hey sweetie – you're 20 minutes late. What happened?" You can certainly put a consequence in place once you find out, but you've got to have that discussion first in a really non-punitive way. It's about trust.

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