Four Simple Rules

I taught one of my favorite workshops yesterday – “Talking to Teens” – and was so surprised  by the enthusiastic response of the parents who attended that I’m going to repeat some of the main points here:

Speak Respectfully.  Once your child reaches the age of 11 or 12, your relationship will be better if you start speaking to him as you would to an adult.  Of course he won’t respond like a full-grown adult for another 10 years or so, but he will appreciate you for treating him with so much respect (and you’ll get better results).  For example, if your neighbor came into your house and left the front door open, you wouldn’t yell, “Hey, shut the door!  What’s the matter with you?  Are you trying to heat up the whole outdoors?”  You’d say, “Would you mind shutting that door, please?  We had a high heating bill last month.  Thanks so much!”  It will work like a charm with your teen, too.

Use Empathy. Being understood by the people who love us is a basic emotional need.  As adults, we are frustrated by people who try to fix our problems when all we want is for them to listen and let us vent.  If your friend called you to complain about her boss making her work extra hours, you wouldn’t say, “Well, you’d better get used to it.  There will always be people in your life that you won’t like!”  You’d say, “That seems unfair!  How about getting together for coffee and you can tell me all about it?”  In the same way, when your daughter complains about how much homework she has this weekend, instead of saying, “Well, you’d better get started on it then,” have a little empathy:  “Homework on the weekend always stinks.  Tell you what – how about if you work for an hour or so, and then we can go out for ice cream to cheer you up?”  Instead of avoiding Nagging Parent, your teen will look forward to sharing with Understanding Parent.

Don’t Downplay. Many of us have had the experience of complaining about how tough our day was, only to have the listener respond with, “You think that’s bad?  Let me tell you about my day.”  After which, very few of us will say, “You’re right – your day was worse than mine.  I’m sorry I complained.”  Most of us will walk away in disgust and go find someone who will commiserate with us.  If you won’t take the time to acknowledge that your teen had a hard day, she will go find someone who will listen to her misery.  To adults, teens seem to have it pretty easy, but think for a moment about how little control they have over their own lives.  Adults get to tell them when to get up, how to dress, what to eat, when to leave (or be ready to be picked up), when to do homework, when to go to bed – leaving many teens feeling like they have little control over their lives.  While it may not compare to losing your job or your house, the stress your teens feel is very real to them.  Take them seriously and let them know you do care about their problems.

Never Embarrass. There’s playful teasing, and then there’s downright embarrassing.  As your teen reaches puberty, he will feel self-conscious and anxious about appearing stupid.  Parents who know their kids’ sensitive issues but still bring them up in front of others are just asking to be excluded from their teens’ lives.  In the same way that I don’t want my husband to mention certain secrets of mine at a party, your teen doesn’t want you to share that he still uses a nightlight or was homesick at camp last summer.  Even if it seems silly to you and not worth getting upset over, listen to your teen’s requests and don’t bring up those embarrassing secrets.  This is also an age where public hugging and kissing might become an issue.  If your teen or pre-teen objects, strike a bargain:  “How about if I only kiss you in the car (or at home), where nobody can see?”  Or maybe you can settle on a high five or a fist pound with the understanding that you both know it means “I love you!”

If you want your teens to both listen to you and open up to you, follow these four rules:  Speak respectfully, use empathy, don’t downplay, and never embarrass.  They’ve always worked for me!


  1. Thank you so much for these posts, Sue! I’ve been reading, enjoying and saving them since you began posting. Now, my “little” boy is 11 (will be 12 in July) and I am starting to see many of the things you’ve talked about. Even though I’ve already raised one son (28 now), it seems I’ve forgotten so many things about teens. I am thankful for your wisdom and insight to this wonderful group of kids, and I look forward to these next few years. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s