McNerney: Tough Conversations with Teens

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

The past few months have been unprecedented in the number of difficult issues teens and families have had to face. We have seen our teens deal with worries about COVID, a radical change in education, missing their connection with friends, and trying to come to terms with race relations. Teens are working extremely hard to come to terms with these new issues on top of the average, day-to-day issues of adolescence. 

In this column, I am going to focus on what we can do, as parents, to encourage dialog about these topics. Although our teens will sometimes act as if they don’t care about our opinion, there is a way we can help structure tough conversations so that they feel heard and allow them to grow. 

My first suggestion is to remember that a crucial part of adolescence is differentiation. Developmentally, this means beginning to be our own person. A part of that process is trying out different points of view, different values, and ways to thinking about their life and the world. Our goal is to encourage our teens to navigate this differentiation in a way that helps them learn about the world and, especially, themselves. 

Remember: Don’t take it personally. Often, differentiation will look like a rejection of the values you might have instilled in them. The more we take things personally, the more likely the conversation will grind to a halt. Your teen is trying out new ways of thinking and feeling about themselves and the world. 

Stay curious and don’t assume you know the “right” answer. A sure-fire way to squelch a conversation is to assume that you are right and your teen is wrong. They will feel it immediately and either stop talking or start yelling. Instead of focusing on right or wrong, try to learn something about your teen. As I have said in other columns, our children have a great ability to teach us about many things in life. We just need to be aware and not assume that we know everything, and they don’t. 

For instance, let’s imagine that your teen tells you that their mental health is more important to them than trying to stay safe from COVID, and that they should be able to spend time physically with their friends. You, on the other hand, do not think it if safe yet for them to do this. Instead of just disagreeing with them and stating your reasons for disagreement, try focusing on their statement. Ask them more about how this has been affecting their mental health. Let them know that you understand how hard this must be for them. “I can’t imagine what this must be like for you, especially because I know how important your friends are in your life.” The goal is not to jump to disagreeing right away. Frame it in a positive light. Even if they don’t get their way, they will feel that at least you understand why this is so hard for them.

Another suggestion to increase communication is to be OK with strong emotions. Our teens are feeling things very strongly, and they are still learning to effectively communicate those feelings. Home should be a safe place to practice this. One way to do this is to focus on their passion, not on their logic in the moment. If your teen, for instance, shares what, to you, might be an extreme position on current events, don’t initially focus on changing their minds. Instead, focus on their passion about the topic, such as: “This is really important to you,” or “I can tell you’ve put a lot of thought into this,” or “I can tell this means a lot to you.” These types of statements encourage more conversation and reminds your teen that your value their opinion. 

Hopefully, these ideas will increase the chances of increased communication with our teens. Stay curious and remember that our teen can also teach us things. Our relationships, and our teens, will benefit. 


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.

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