When tough subjects like alcohol, drug use and vaping come up at home, parents can employ some key strategies to keep the lines of communication open with their teenage children and support them in making healthy choices.
Sincere empathy and a genuine desire to learn about a teen’s experiences can help parents empower their children to make smart decisions on their own. That, after all, should be one of the main goals of parenting any adolescent child, said Kellyn Glynn, behavioral health supervisor with the Summit Community Care Clinic.
“The earlier the better when it comes to having conversations like this,” she said. “You’re not trying to keep teens away from difficult situations — you’re trying to help them make good choices on their own.”
We asked Glynn and Lauren Gearhart, the program coordinator for Mountain Mentors, about the best ways to talk to teenage children about difficult topics. Here are 7 of their best tips.
1. Be genuine
When both talking and listening, it’s essential to be genuine with your teen. By empathizing with your teen about peer pressure and other adolescent challenges, teens will feel respected and heard.
If you’re feeling nervous about a party that your son or daughter is attending, talk to them about it.
“Be genuine and authentic about how you’re feeling, and share your side of things as a parent,” Glynn said.
Being genuine also opens the lines of communication for all kinds of difficult topics, Gearhart said.
2. Ask open-ended questions
When you’re trying to get more than a one-word response from your teen, open-ended questions are essential. By providing teens the opportunity to share their perspective, you’re also able to truly hear their concerns rather than simply wait for your turn to speak. These open-ended questions also prevent putting words in a teen’s mouth or contaminating their responses.
“Young people have a lot to say, so give them the opportunity to express themselves and share what they’re thinking and feeling,” Glynn said.
Gearhart said you might ask questions in the following types of formats:
- How do you think using marijuana helps or hurts young adults?
- Can you help me understand some of the pressures, good or bad, social media places on you?
- What are your feelings on your classmates drinking?
3, Be an active listener
When you’re having a talk with your teen about something difficult, don’t just wait for your turn to speak. Being present and really listening — without any predetermined responses — builds trust.
“Active listening shows the young person you’re not there just to tell them what to do, but that you want to hear their story,” Glynn said. “At this age, young people feel really respected if they feel they’re a part of the conversation instead of listening only because an authority figure is talking to them.”
It’s common for parents to want to tell the teen they’ve been through this before and know what the outcome is going to be, but for the teen, this is brand new.
“It’s important to listen and not to talk over them by saying you’ve been there before,” she said.
After you’ve genuinely listened, summarize what you heard and give them an opportunity to correct you, Gearhart said.
4. Don’t judge or accuse
One of the fastest ways to get your teenager to shut down is to say something bad about one of their friends or to say anything accusatory, Glynn said.
“Teens are often in alignment with their friends, so don’t say something bad about a friend or tell them they can’t hang out with that person,” she said. “Instead, ask them about that friendship and if it’s positive for them. Help them make good choices on their own.”
If you want to avoid a conversation-stopper, do not gasp, shame, blame or punish.
“Personal attacks on behavior make it harder to work through the problem logically,” Gearhart said. “Don’t go into a conversation and pre-judge the situation or assume you know what happened.”
5. Avoid scare tactics
Research shows that creating fear about drugs, alcohol or sex — such as showing teens graphic images, sharing scary stories about past experiences or sharing tragic outcomes — might have the opposite effect.
“The evolution of youth development curriculum has proven that scare tactics don’t tend to work,” Gearhart said. “Teens appreciate and value honest information instead of scaring them and making judgments about their behavior,” she said.
6. Keep trying — don’t have just one “talk”
Talking “early and often” is the best way to have success, just like in any relationship. Getting in a routine of having these open and honest dialogues helps build a solid foundation, Gearhart said.
The reason it might not work to have one “drugs talk” or one “alcohol talk” and then check it off your list is because that conversation might not have been relevant to the child or teen at the time, Glynn said.
It’s also important to have these conversations as early as middle school, she said, and they don’t always need to be specific to drugs and alcohol.
“Just having conversations with your young child about making their own choices and decisions can be empowering to them,” she said.
7. Keep it short
Unless the teen is feeling particularly chatty during one of these conversations, Glynn advises parents to keep the conversations on the shorter side.
“Keeping it shorter will keep them engaged and it will feel less uncomfortable,” she said. “You want to get the message through and not get tuned out.”