Let’s be honest, it’s hard to communicate with your teenager.
“Communication problems” are probably the number one reason that people seek counseling–or they think it is. In reality, there are a multitude of issues that prevent people from having healthy and loving communication and connection.
“Communication” is an umbrella. Hiding beneath it are more specific issues related to trust, consistency, listening, forgiveness, empathy, and respect (just to name a few). When it comes to communicating with your teenager, it can be challenging (and your teen will be the first one to say so)!
Adolescents know that they can be stubborn and difficult to communicate with (just as most of us were at that age). I see several teenagers in my office, and have compiled a shortlist of four things that they are crying out for.
1. Your teenager wants you to communicate respect
Many of us have heard of “Love and Respect” ministries and their passion for maintaining marital health and enrichment. They recently released a new book entitled “Love and Respect in the Family.” They make this statement:
“Psychological studies affirm what the Bible has always said: children need the love that God tells us to give them (Titus 2:4). And parents desire the respect that Scripture plainly says is our due (Exodus 20:12).”
Here is the problem I see repeatedly. Parents bring their teenagers in for counseling and spend the first 15 minutes complaining about them, in front of them. The parents desire to be respected by their child, but seem to clearly lack respect for them; essentially, there is a double standard.
Disrespectful behavior is purposeful and makes sense in context… it is your job as their parent to get to the root of it. I like this quote from Focus on the Family:
“Respect doesn’t mean giving your son his own way. Nor does it imply that he has to see everything from your point of view or do everything according to your specifications. To respect someone is not necessarily to agree with him or trust him automatically. According to Webster’s Dictionary, respect is “a courteous consideration of another person.” To put it another way, respect is something separate from decisions, rules, or actions. It’s how you treat the other person while making your decisions, enforcing your rules, and sticking to your guns.”
Sit down with your child and communicate with your teenager about defining respect (i.e. “I know that we haven’t always done the best job of it, but it is really important to us that you feel respected by us as your parents. What does respect mean to you?”)
Consider how you would define respect as well. Have a genuine conversation about expectations regarding how you treat each other. When you’re having a positive or neutral conversation or conflict–it is important that you begin to “listen to hear,” not “listen to speak.”
Respectful, loving communication deals largely with one’s ability to listen and affirm what the other is saying, so that they know they are being heard (even if you disagree with one another).
Also, try looking out for “invites” in conversation. Responding carefully and thoughtfully to your teen’s open invitation to speak into their life will increase their sense of respect and trust for you. As one writer, Tammy Darling, put it: “Many parents miss clear signs that indicate their teenagers want to talk. An open window may come in the form of a question like “Do you think I’m pretty?” or a casual statement like “I don’t think anyone on the basketball team likes me.” If your teenager demonstrates such openness, seize the moment. Don’t just say, “Of course they like you.” Ask, “What makes you say that?” And make comments like “Tell me more about it.” These moments can occur at any time, so learn to recognize them and do whatever it takes to follow through.
2. Your teenager wants to be known
I talk about this a lot with parents: you cannot parent all of your children the same way. Some days you wonder how in the world all of your kids came from the same place; they are so vastly different! Our children have varying personalities, traits, temperaments, energy levels, skills, areas of weakness, natural abilities, and learning disabilities. The best way to communicate with your teenager is by focusing on their uniqueness.
It will absolutely take more wisdom, energy, and effort, but the long-term payoff is so rewarding!
“Solomon said, “Train.” He did not say raise. You raise vegetables, but you train children. Feeding a child nutritious meals, providing warm clothing, giving him his own bedroom, and kissing him good night is not training. Most every species of animals does these things for their young. Training a child is calculated instruction and discipline to form long-term character and wisdom in the fear of the Lord and knowledge of Scripture.”
Provision is important, but on its own it is a passive and disconnected way to parent. You must see yourselves as “trainers,” chosen by God to grow His child into the man or woman He is calling them to be.
The most important thing you could ever do for your quality communication with your teenager is to be consistent. I recently had a teenager in my office who said, “My parents told me that I am grounded right now from seeing friends. I know “how they are” and I wanted to hang out with people so I told them that I wanted to spend some time with some of my Christian friends tomorrow night, and without hesitating they not only said yes, they helped me figure out how to make the plans work and offered to drive me. They don’t know how to be consistent when it comes to ‘grounding’ me.”
I hear this so often. Instruction and discipline that is inconsistent confuses your teenager and increases their likelihood to lie, cheat, and sneak around.
Teenagers hate to be punished but appreciate united, consistent parents across every aspect of their life because it makes them feel safe and protected.
3. Your teenager needs you to have faith in them
Obviously, this is easier said than done. Parenting in this culture can be daunting and scary, especially for parents who want their children to learn to live with moral standards that reflect the character of Jesus.
Hannah Goodwin from CBN states that, “Parenting out of fear can make you an overbearing, controlling parent. Raise your children to honor God, and He will guide them. Too many times, controlling parents react to life — when it comes to their children — out of fear and end up damaging their relationship with them.”
I would venture to guess that nine out of ten adolescent clients of mine state that their parents are “too conservative” or “too strict.” Is it wrong to have standards, expectations, rules, and boundaries? Absolutely not, and in fact, not having these things would be irresponsible.
But, what is your motivation for maintaining some of these perspectives, rules, and regulations? Your anxiety and worry is something that can be felt strongly by your children. They sense your fear and choose to either adopt a similar mindset, or rebel strongly against it. Your fear can hold your teenagers back from learning skills related to independence and self-reliance–skills that are essential for success later in life.
Release your children to the Lord; read the story of Hannah and Samuel in 1 Samuel 1. One of the most impactful ways you can communicate with your teenager is to be honest with what they already know to be true.
Talk about strangers, dangerous substances, and STDs, but don’t exaggerate the uncertainties of everyday life. Your child must learn to discern the difference between influences that are helpful and harmful.
This is the same reason why it is important not to prevent them from spending time with other teens who don’t live out their faith or have Christ at the center of their lives. Know who your children are interacting with, but don’t force them to be in relationships that are only approved or accepted by you.
God may have chosen your child to show love to people in their school who don’t have as much love or opportunity as they have been shown. I once heard a parent say, “Trying to prevent any kind of pain in their life also prevents an awful lot of learning opportunities.”
No parent desires to watch their teenager walk through pain or consequences, but we need to choose to believe in the promise that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” Romans 8:28. Choose to show your child unconditional love with appropriate boundaries that demonstrates stability, support, and trust.
4. Your teenager wants you to choose hope
I consistently hear teens saying things like: “She is really good at telling me what I’m doing wrong,” or “He is constantly yelling at me when I mess up.”
Adolescents are trying to navigate one of the most confusing and frustrating stages of life; they are trying to figure out their purpose and identity. When you use language to address your child’s mistakes, weaknesses, and failings in ways that hurt, belittle, patronize, and make fun, they automatically begin losing trust in the person that they are expected to view as their protector, provider, and parent.
Many teenagers never hear positive words or praise from their parents. Many of them are so accustomed to hearing about what they are doing wrong, and how they are not doing a good job that they begin using their brief, repetitive defense mechanisms to shut down your behavior (i.e. “I dunno”- “whatever”- “mmm hmm”). These are tell-tale signs that they don’t feel comfortable or “safe” engaging in conversation with you.
Ask yourself how you could be contributing to the problem. Catch your child doing good! Call out their strengths, encourage their unique talents, and help them to identify and cultivate their spiritual gifts.
When you recognize your child’s weakness, try to identify a strength that it may be related to; this is simply a “shadow side” of a God-given strength. Focus on what they possess, not what they lack!
For example: your child may come across as abrasive, intense and bossy. They probably have strong leadership or commanding skills that will make them an effective boss or manager in the future. Try viewing their “bossiness” as “decisiveness.” Learn to speak to, guide, and cultivate this strength.
Address mistakes in a calm, firm, consistent manner; screaming and belittling is unacceptable and irrational. Be sure to have intentional conversation about “neutral” subjects that interest your child (i.e. sports, hobbies, music, creative arts, etc.). These types of conversations increase relational intimacy and tend to steer clear of stress and conflict.
Above all of this advice and direction- you need to pray for your children! Take a moment to pray for the best and healthiest way to communicate with your teenager. Pray for your teens to make wise choices and for God to give you the words to speak to them. You are their model of what it means to truly love God and love people. Be a good steward of this responsibility!
Did you know that we offer online counseling?
You can meet with a Christian family therapist to work directly on communication issues with your teenager. Take a moment to view our Online Christian Counselors. As always, if you have questions, please reach out to our office and we would be happy to help!
(To order a copy of “Love and Respect in the Family,” click here)
*This blog was last edited for grammar and clarity in October 2021