Your classmate said "yes" to a date, and tonight's the big night. Suddenly you're feeling nervous — and could use a word of encouragement. You got the lead in the school play and you can't wait to tell someone how excited you are. You didn't make the final cut for the team and need some moral support. Who's the first person you go to at moments like this? If you're like most guys and girls, you're more likely to share your feelings with a friend than your parents.
When you were younger, your mom and dad were the first people you shared your good news with — and your problems. So what happened? Why is it that talking with your parents was so easy then and yet it's so hard now?
Changes That Affect Communication During Adolescence
It's not just your body that develops during puberty. Your mind is growing too. And this emotional development affects your relationships — all of them. Just as you've noticed how some friendships deepen whereas others end, the longstanding relationships you have with people like parents are going to change too. It's all about establishing the unique identity and interests that will turn you into an independent, self-reliant adult.
People's minds develop in several ways during their teenage years. Not only is this a time when you develop better problem-solving skills and the ability to make responsible choices, you're also examining different values and beliefs and engaging in more self-discovery than at any other time in your life.
It's not hard to see how these changes can affect relationships with adults: You're more confident in your ability to decide things for yourself and resolve problems on your own, but your parents may still see you as the little kid who relied on them to make all the decisions. You're trying out new approaches to life and beliefs, but these may not be the same as those held by your parents. Although it's important for teens to separate themselves from their parents as a way of discovering their own identity, the separation process is a delicate balance. And it's one of the biggest times of conflict between a parent and child.
To achieve a sense of separation, some guys and girls may find themselves disagreeing with, clashing with, and rebelling against their parents for a time. Others may want to voice their opinions but keep them suppressed because they don't want to upset a parent or other authority figure. All of these changes can feel confusing to someone who's used to having a close relationship with a parent or other adult. So how can you make sure your voice is not only heard but listened to?
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
The best tool you can use in communicating with parents — or any adult — is to keep talking to them, no matter what. Strong relationships depend heavily on keeping the lines of communication open (think of your close friends and how much you talk). Try to talk about everyday stuff with your parents as a way of building a connection. That doesn't mean telling them everything. In fact, turn the focus onto them for a change: Ask about their day — just as they do with you.
David found out firsthand how a lack of communication can grow into bigger problems. When he casually mentioned at dinner that he was thinking of trying out for the school play, his mom kept asking about it for weeks. To David, it seemed like she just couldn't let up, and her endless questions added to the pressure he placed on himself to do well. It also felt like she was getting too involved in something he wanted to do himself. He didn't want to share every detail with his mom like he might have when he was young. Instead of telling his mom how he felt, David decided it would be easier not to fill her in on anything he was doing in future. Unfortunately, this built into a trust barrier between the two of them.
What David didn't realize is that his mom wasn't intending to pressure him. She was genuinely interested in his activities and wanted to show her support — and she had no idea that David found her questions intrusive. Because they didn't talk about it, their misunderstanding grew. When David stopped talking to his mom about his friends and activities, his mother assumed he was hiding something. She began setting up curfews and limits that David found unreasonable.
A better approach for David would have been to talk to his mom, rationally, about the pressure he was feeling. Your parents may have understood you really well as a little kid, but don't assume this carries over to your life as a teenager. Tell them — as kindly as you can — how you feel about things.
Another way to get a parent to ask fewer questions is to offer some information on your own. This puts the communication in your hands. The more you keep adults informed about everyday things — even seemingly routine things like who drove you to soccer practice — the less they need to ask. Communicating everyday things has another advantage: It can show your parents that you're mature and responsible enough to make good decisions.
For example, Mandy knew her parents would wonder why she'd decided to ride to practice with Jenna instead of Sam, her usual driver. But when she told them she'd made the decision because Sam drove too fast, her parents appreciated her good judgment.
It won't always be easy. You may get frustrated at times. But try not to give up. It may take a bit for a parent who is used to making all the decisions to adjust to the independent-thinking person their child is becoming. Parents also don't want to see their sons and daughters suffer if the choices they make on their own aren't the "right" ones. To many parents, it seems easier to step in and take control simply because they believe their years of experience put them in a better position to make decisions. If you feel that's the case with your parents, talk to them about it.
Disagree Without Disrespect
Parents are only human, and they can feel offended when their views are challenged. Parents can take their teen's disagreement personally, especially if you question values that your parents hold dear, such as political or religious beliefs. So what can you do to get your points across in a way that doesn't turn ugly? Remember this motto: "Disagree without disrespect."
Using respectful language and behavior in your everyday interactions is important. Resist the temptation to use sarcasm, yell, or put down your parents and you'll have a much better chance of getting what you want.
Nonverbal actions reinforce respectful language and show that you mean what you say. If you're helpful and considerate toward family members, teachers, or coaches in your everyday actions, it demonstrates respect and helps establish a foundation for those times when you may disagree. Plus, acting respectfully demonstrates maturity. Parents are more likely to think of their children as grown up — and, as a result, capable of making more important decisions — when they see them acting maturely.
How to Disagree With Your Parents
Of course, some parents are better than others at helping you to communicate well. Parents can help by listening to and respecting a teen's point of view, even if it opposes their own. If your parents just don't seem to be on the same track as you, try these tips for disagreeing constructively:
Don't make it personal. If you get upset, try to remember you're mad at the idea or concept your parent or another adult is raising, not the person.
Avoid putting down your parents' ideas and beliefs. Instead of saying "That's a stupid idea," try "I don't agree, and here's why."
Use "I" statements to communicate how you feel, what you think, and what you want or need. Using "you" statements can sound argumentative. For example, telling your mom or dad, "You always remind me about my chores on Wednesdays when you know I have a lot of homework" has a very different tone from "I'm feeling pressured because I have a lot of homework tonight. Can I do those chores tomorrow?"
Listen to the other point of view. Doing so makes it more likely that a parent or adult will listen to yours.
Raising Difficult Issues
Your coach hit you. Someone in your group has been arrested for shoplifting. Your best friend tried to commit suicide: There are times when you'll need help from your parents — if you're in trouble, want advice or guidance, or are having trouble managing emotions or dealing with a difficult experience.
Raising sensitive topics can be difficult, but sometimes a parent knows you better than you think. And teens who have already built good communication habits with their parents will have an easier time talking to them about the tough issues.
Here are some strategies for approaching your parents (or any adult) with a difficult issue:
Plan what you want to say ahead of time. Thinking the issue over beforehand or writing notes will help you manage the conversation. Write down the three most important things you want your parents to know (many adults use this technique too; it's a great way to prioritize and focus the conversation on what's important). You may also want to think about how your parents might react and plan the most effective response.
Let them know directly that there's something you'd like to discuss. To be sure you have their full attention, be direct in your language. Say, "There's something important I want to talk to you about" instead of "Hey, when you have a moment I'd like to talk." Of course, if the issue you have is an emergency, you'll need to address your concern quickly. Prepare them for the conversation by telling them you need their attention on something that's urgent.
Pick a good time to talk. Try to approach them at a time when you know they'll be less busy and more able to focus on you. You may even want to ask if they could set aside an hour or so to talk at a particular time so that you know you have their undivided attention.
Write it down. Some people find it easier to put their ideas into a letter. Let the other person read it and then have your discussion.
Talking to Other Adults
No matter how good your relationship is with your parents, there will be times when you'll feel more comfortable confiding in or asking for help from other adults. If you'd rather not ask your parents about a particular issue (like sex), if you feel you're being abused by a parent, or if you'd just like to talk to someone else first, there are always other resources. Most adults will keep your conversations confidential if you ask them to, unless they fear that your health or well-being may be in jeopardy.
If you're having problems with friends, schoolwork, teachers, or your parents, consider talking to your school guidance counselor. These counselors are specially trained to talk privately with you and to provide help and support in these types of situations. A guidance counselor can also refer a teen to a professional therapist in cases where this might be beneficial.
For medical concerns and questions about sex, try talking to your school nurse, health education teacher, family doctor, an adolescent doctor (a doctor who specializes in treating adolescents and teens), or a gynecologist.
Other family members, such as an aunt, uncle, or older sibling, can help provide wisdom or comfort when it's needed. Parents of a close friend may also be able to help. (They may even be able to ease your parents' fears about certain issues — like dating, going to a co-ed party, or sleeping over at a new friend's house.)
If you're involved in a church group or belong to a synagogue or mosque, your spiritual or youth group leader may also be a good source of comfort and advice. And if you're involved in an extracurricular activity, such as sports or drama, you may feel close enough to your coach or advisor to ask him or her about the more personal stuff.
Even if you'd rather talk to friends about certain things, there are times when talking to parents or other adults is a necessity. If you think you're in danger physically or mentally, talking to a responsible adult is important. And if you're concerned about a friend with a serious problem, don't worry about getting him or her in trouble. Waiting for the "right time" could be too late for someone who is suicidal, has an eating disorder, or is being abused. An adult may have more experience, be able to contact the right person, or find the best resources to get help.
Communicating with your parents may seem difficult right now, but chances are it will get easier with time. When this period of growth is over, it's likely you'll return to feeling close to your parents and that you'll communicate with them on a new level.
Reviewed by: Neil Izenberg, MD
Date reviewed: August 2006