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Talk Like a Pro: Practical Strategies for Open Communication with Teens

Written by Cameron O’Brien, ACC

Adolescence is a developmental stage where young people tend to pull away from their parents and assert independence by shouldering tasks alone or by guarding emotions. Nevertheless, it is important for parents and adults to engage young people in regular conversations around their feelings, values, aspirations, and mental health. Keeping that connection alive is essential to maintaining mutual trust throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

Are Teens Talking? Here’s the Research:

A 2022 NAMI Poll found that fewer than half (48%) of teens (ages 12-17) surveyed talk to their parents about their mental health and how they are feeling. Additionally, a mere 7% of teens have conversations about mental health with teachers or other adults in school often. 19% say they so do sometimes.

Data from a CVS Health survey published in 2022 suggests 78% of educators have been approached by a child about a mental or emotional concern. Three-quarters of the educators surveyed say they are concerned about adolescent’s mental health, compared to 43% of parents who say the same.

4 Tips for Healthy Communication with Your Teen:

  1. Timing is everything.

Choose a good time to have a conversation with the young person, ideally when you both can make space to be together without an agenda or pressure. Be aware of the adolescent’s willingness to engage before starting the conversation. If they seem stressed with work or moody from school, wait until they are less preoccupied.

  • Talk WITH your teen, not AT them.

Ask your teen engaging questions about their life and interests. Demonstrate a genuine interest in their thoughts and feelings. Be a safe space; validate their emotions, and give praise where appropriate. Don’t lecture, don’t minimize, and don’t compare. Offer advice only if it’s requested.  If you want to bring up a topic, do so using observation; share with the teen what you’ve noticed about them in a non-judgmental way, and ask them to share their thoughts.

  • Listen more than you speak.

Teens have an interest in talking about themselves. Taking the time to listen to them can help boost their confidence – they will believe that what they have to say holds value. Listen without planning to respond; no lectures or judgements, just be present with them in the space, and manage your own emotions if needed.

  • Patience is paramount.

Most importantly, be patient with your adolescent. It will take time to build the trust that will facilitate consistent communication between you two. Continue to make efforts to engage with them even if they are initially unresponsive.

Sample Conversation Starters for All Phases of Adolescence

Conversation Starters for Ages 11 to 13

Focus on: school, interests, friends.

Example questions:

  1. What makes someone a good friend?
  2. What do you like to do after school?
  3. What do you like to buy when you have money?
  4. Who do you look up to the most, and why?

Conversation Starters for Ages 13 to 16

Focus on: school, goals, interests, friends.

Example questions:

  1. What are your pet peeves?
  2. What is something you want to buy when you have the money to do so?
  3. If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?
  4. What would a perfect day look like for you?

Conversation Starters for Ages 16 to 18

Focus on: school, goals, interests, personality, money, existential.

Example questions:

  1. What are 5 things you want to do after high school?
  2. How would your best friend describe your personality?
  3. If you won 10 million dollars in the lottery, how would you spend the money?
  4. What class are you learning the most/least in, and why?

Conversation Starters for Ages 18 to 21

Focus on: school, career, goals, money, family, existential, personality.

Example questions:

  1. What do you think is the purpose of life?
  2. Tell me about something that brings you joy.
  3. What is a short-term financial goal you have? What is a long-term goal?
  4. What is something you want people to know or remember about you?

CTA: Interested in learning more tips on effectively communicating with teens? Check out our accredited life coaching programs.

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