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Communicating Effectively with Teenagers

Are you finding raising adolescents to be difficult? If so, you are not alone. Raising adolescents in a successful way requires good communication skills. Moms & dads do not automatically posses the skills necessary to communicate with their adolescents in an effective way. Communication skills like any other kind of skill must be learned. The following tips can help you reach your adolescent and make the difficult job of raising adolescents that much easier.

Possessing a loving, evolving, healthy relationship with an adolescent means getting to know him or her as a person; this is especially important when we consider that a primary task of successfully navigating through adolescence is identity formation. Moms & dads, and anyone who works with troubled adolescents, will need to focus on taking intentional steps towards forming a meaningful relationship with the adolescent. A primary mechanism of discerning, learning, and understanding the personality characteristics and identity of a problem child is through effective communication. Effective communication incorporates a variety of skills some of which include attending behaviors, reflective listening, open and closed questions, and observation.

Attending Behaviors—

Attending behaviors, including eye contact, vocal qualities, verbal tracking, and body language, can communicate to adolescents that you truly want to hear and understand what he or she is saying. For a troubled adolescent, it may also communicate that you care and want to connect on a personal and emotional level. Although there are cultural differences in the effective use of attending, generally direct eye contact is considered a sign that the individual being spoken to is fully present and listening. Breaks in eye contact may inform the listener in determining topics that could be uncomfortable or distressing. Vocal qualities, on the part of either the speaker or the listener, such as changes in pitch, volume, and rate of speech, can communicate care, understanding, or a lack thereof.

Verbal tracking is another attending behavior that may assist the adult in receiving the entire content or emotion that is being communicated to the adolescent. If the adolescent tends to shift topics, you, the adult, may want to pull the conversation back to a specific “track” to obtain the full narrative of a situation or concern. In addition, body language, rather than verbal exchange, is a primary means of communicating with adolescents. A person may move towards another when interested and away when uninterested or uncomfortable. To facilitate open communication with an adolescent, body language must remain authentic, relaxed, open, respectful, and convey care and a sense of attentive presence.

Reflective Listening—

Reflective listening, such as through the use of paraphrasing, encouragers (e.g., nodding your head, saying uh-uh, repeating the last word of an adolescent’s sentence in the form of a question to encourage additional elaboration), or restating what you hear in your own words to confirm that you accurately understand the adolescent’s narrative or concern, demonstrates that you empathize and are interested. When a teen feels heard, he or she is more likely to remain open and develop trust with another. Attempt to reflect back to the adolescent not just the content, but also the feelings underneath the content. This aids the adolescent in identifying and labeling feelings, thereby increasing insight and understanding of self.

Open and Closed Questions—

Through the use of open and closed questions, you may assist an adolescent in exploring ideas and experiences from a variety of angles. This also helps in developing insight and self-awareness. Asking questions such as, “What else?”, “What happened before you felt afraid or acted out in anger?”, “Was there something different going on that made you react differently?”, “Could you give me a specific example?” facilitate understanding. Closed questions may be effective in obtaining specific information and generally begin with is, are, or do. Open questions encourage additional dialogue and generally begin with what, how, why, or could. However, when communicating with an adolescent, be particularly careful with the use of questions that begin with “Why?” The use of “why” questions may create a sense of feeling attacked or judged and may place the adolescent on his or her defensive. In addition, it is often a reality that the adolescent may be unclear as to the why of a feeling or reaction. Through open questions, we can assist him or her in increased understanding of who he or she is becoming as a person; it may also inform the adolescent on what could be driving his or her behaviors and emotions.


Above all, observe the reactions of the adolescent and yourself when communicating. Are your responses, body language, questions, and/or tone of voice encouraging additional sharing or resulting in the adolescent withdrawing from the exchange? What signals is the adolescent providing through body language, rate of speech, and pitch? By utilizing attending behaviors, reflective listening, open and closed questions, and observation skills, we can increase our accessibility and approachability with the adolescents we care for and work with. This improves the ability to maintain an authentic connection and provides a firm foundation for a healthy and evolving relationship. It also models effective communication skills that the adolescent may carry for the rest of his or her life.

In summary, raising adolescents takes effort in communication. If you want to communicate with your adolescent successfully, treat them as the real people they are. Get to know them through these communication techniques. Show them you are interested in them and what they are saying by using the attending behaviors outlined above. Confirm to them that you do understand what they are saying through reflective listening techniques. Use open and closed questions to help get to the root of the problems being discussed. Finally, always tailor your communication style by careful observation of your adolescent's reactions. You want to engage your adolescent in the open exchange of thoughts and feelings. By using these communication techniques, you can become more effective at raising adolescents.

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