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How Do I Talk to My Teenager?
Tips for Opening Communication with Your Adolescent Son or Daughter

Jamie Copaken, LCSW, LSCSW


What’s Happening?

My sweet daughter has turned into a monster! 

And your son locks himself in his room. They’re so different now that they’re teenagers. What happened?

Mention that you’re raising a teenager, and your friends may groan or nod their head in knowing sympathy. Some teenagers are little trouble, but many test their parents’ patience to no end. This can make parents feel frustrated, confused, angry, hurt and inadequate.

Every parent could use “insider tips” on how to deal with a troublesome teenager. Especially now that the problems you face can have such permanent and damaging consequences. You can ask family, friends, and clergy for advice. In addition, here is some insight from experts in social work, counseling, and psychology. Using this guide may help you communicate better. It should help your teen hear you and you hear him.

Is my kid normal?

Does it seem your teenager is allergic to you? You may not like this feeling, but it is normal. This is what happens when teenagers try to stop being children and start becoming adults. This can be a difficult process, as they abandon childish behavior and beliefs and try acting and thinking for themselves.

As they turn away from childish things, it makes sense that they turn away from you and your advice. During this process, they may be dismissive of your thoughts and opinions. But they will still absorb what you say, so keep trying.

Does he know my values?

The most common teenager-parent interaction is around chores and curfews. But what about the bigger issues? Do they know how you feel about education, trust, religion, and family? What about drinking, drugs, sex, stealing, violence, and gangs? What about suicide, depression, cutting, and eating disorders? Continue to discuss these and other issues that are important to you. You have to build an ongoing dialogue, not just give a five-minute lecture.

School Work

Why is my child not succeeding in school?

This could be due to several reasons. He could be emotionally upset about some major change in his life. He could be rebelling against your wishes. He could be trying to fit in with friends who won’t like him if he’s “too smart.” The material may be too difficult for him. He could have a learning difference/disability. Maybe he has too many activities and chores and has no time to study. Maybe he has no quiet place to study. Ask him and his teachers.

She never does homework.

The best way to get a teen to do her homework is to supervise her.

  • Find her a quiet space to study.
  • Clear one half hour each night when she can only do homework. Ban all other activities during this time.
  • Don’t do the work for her. Help her only after she’s tried. Let her take responsibility.
  • Work with the teacher. Call the teacher and ask for help.
  • Help her use “chunking.” This is taking a large assignment and breaking it into smaller pieces. For example, just do a few math problems at a time. Or spread larger assignments over several days.
  • Motivate with praise for effort and success. This builds confidence.
  • Use incentives and rewards. Only after the work is done – and done well – can she be allowed to do fun things, like watching TV, talking on the phone or going out.
  • Back up your words. Be clear about consequences and follow through with your promises and punishments.

Listening Skills

How do I talk to my teenager so he hears me?

A loving relationship cannot exist without communication. Kids have valuable things to say and, when a parent listens openly and genuinely, it builds self-esteem and confidence – for you and your kid.


  • Give undivided attention. If you can’t, share what’s going on with you: “I had an awful day. Can I talk to you in an hour?”
  • Validate his feelings: “I can see this really upsets you.” “I understand how that must feel.”
  • Use “I” statements, not “you” statements: “I feel worried when you don’t come home on time” rather than “You never come home on time!”
  • Praise. Thank them for telling you, even if you don’t like what you hear.
  • Ask how you can help. He may just want you to listen, not to solve the problem. Remember that when your child says, “I don’t know what to do,” this does not equal, “Please tell me what to do.”
  • Identify the problem and the feelings.
  • Brainstorm solutions.


  • Interrupt, lecture, accuse, nag, yell, criticize, or ignore his perspective.

She says I never listen to her. How do I listen when she makes me so angry?

  • The first step is to accept her right to say whatever she has to say, no matter how unreasonable it may seem.
  • You can walk away at any point.
  • Kids sometimes pick the worst times to talk. Try and listen when she needs you. If you can’t, suggest another specific time to talk.
  • Pay attention, even if it sounds meaningless and small. If she can trust you with small stuff, she’s more likely to trust you with bigger concerns.
  • Notice what your nonverbal communication says. Are you maintaining eye contact, nodding, using a caring tone?

Problem Solving

He’s come to me with a problem, what do I do?

Have confidence that you are the right person for the job. Let him express himself. Try not to interrupt. Ask him if he can come up with a solution himself. Help him brainstorm several options, and discuss which one he picks.

Giving advice can make a teen feel helpless and less independent. Try to get him to come up with the solution himself. If that fails and the situation is serious enough that you must advise, do so.

“What did you do today?” “Nothing.”

How do you get a silent kid to open up? Short answers and not wanting to talk to parents is all part of being a teenager. But keep trying. They’ll be glad you did.

  • Activities promote communication. Find something you can enjoy together, and conversation will flow more easily. Even though family and work schedules are complicated, try to do things together. Maybe at the same time once a week, eat as a family, cook together, do chores together, go for a walk, watch TV or movies.
  • Attend her events. This shows that you support her and allows you to see what she cares about. Often teens appear hopeless or lazy at home, but are very serious outside of the home, like at a job, activity or in school.


I never talked to my parents that way.

You probably didn’t. But today’s kids, like it or not, have changed. They are less fearful, less obedient and more outspoken. In most situations, threatening them and inducing fear may only provoke anger and resentment – for both of you. It also teaches kids that the only way to get what they want is through fear and intimidation.

  • When you are setting limits and rules: Don’t be pulled into long arguments. You can listen to his initial argument, but then stop and tell him you’re leaving the room. Teens often argue just to avoid doing what you tell them.
  • When he breaks a rule: State the rule has been broken. Emphasize that the behavior is unacceptable. Declare the rule is still in effect.
  • Avoid empty threats, name calling, and getting pulled into extra arguments.
  • Be calm, clear and concise.
  • Pick your battles. Not everything is worth the fight.

How do I talk to her about drugs and alcohol?

  • To start the conversation, try tying into her favorite TV shows, the news, or family events.
  • Discuss the risks and whether they’re worth it.
  • Emphasize the two D’s: drugs are Dangerous (to her health) and Disgusting. For example, does your teen know that smoking turns her fingernails yellow, makes her smell bad, gives her premature wrinkles, and makes her short of breath?

What is abuse?

If a parent hits a child of any age and it leaves a mark, it could be legally defined as abuse. Other forms of abuse include emotional and sexual abuse. These have legal ramifications.

What is parenting?

It’s the balance of setting limits and letting go of some control, even when the risks are so high. It’s loving unconditionally, even when the kids act like they don’t want it. It’s doing what you think is best, even if you have no idea. It’s OK to have flaws, and it’s OK to change your mind.

Advice straight from the kids:

  • “Pay attention to me.”
  • “I need you to listen more than talk.”
  • “Talk to me. Don’t just tell me ‘don’t do that.’”
  • “Be honest with me.”
  • “Don’t interrupt me or change the subject.”

I need more information.

This guide is only a brief beginning to understanding the complexities of parenting and raising teenagers. Each individual and situation is unique. Continue to trust yourself and talk with friends, family, clergy, community centers and professional counselors for more help.

I am available to answer any questions you might have, so please contact me.  Also, check your library, bookstore or video store and web sites. Some of the above information was from the following resources:

  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Parenting a Teenager
  • Homework without Tears
  • Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall

James (Jamie) Copaken, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, working in private practice with children, adults, couples, and families. 


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