By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT
Being a teenager can be very confusing and emotional at times. This can make it difficult for a parent to understand how to approach their teen and how to develop a strong bond with them through this stage of their life. There are several factors you should keep in mind when connecting with your teenager to help make sure you are creating a space that is empathetic and understanding.
As we develop, we have several psycho-social milestones we are expected to complete at by the end of each life stage. The milestone that teenagers are trying to develop is their individual identity. Teenagers are beginning to separate their identity from the identity of their family. Friends begin to have a larger influence on them than their parents, so it is important for parents to find a balance where they are giving the teen their space, but are still available when teens need more than their friends can provide.
We know now that human brains do not fully develop until we are in our mid-twenties. The area of the brain that is still maturing through our teen years and into our mid-20’s is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for executive functioning, which includes planning, attention, inhibition and working memory (process actions that are happening to you in the present moment). This can make it much more difficult for teenagers to be organized and use self-control.
In our teen years, we also rely heavily on our amygdala for processing information about the world around us. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for our emotions. Processing information in the emotional center of the brain can cause teens to react with stronger emotions in situations where an adult may not react so strongly.
Keeping these facts in mind, here are some tips to use when trying to establish better communication between you and your teen:
- Create a safe space: You will want to create an environment for your teen that lets them know you are open source to talk to that is free of judgment. This may include not reacting strongly to what they are saying and holding off on giving advice unless they ask for it.
- Active listening: This can be as easy are nodding and saying “Uh huh” as they are speaking or repeating important points back to your teen. These are skills many therapists use. It can let your teen that you are connecting with them so they feel more open to sharing.
- Withhold your impulse reactions: When they admit to something that you disagree with, withhold your gut reactions as best as you can. If this means leaving the room for a couple minutes to collect your thoughts, tell your teen you need to take care of something really quick and leave the room. Come back and rejoin the conversation when you feel like you have a clear mind. Reacting impulsively can sometimes close a teen off.
- Make time for your teen: Being available to your teen consistently is very important in establishing a more open relationship.
- Give them space: It is sometimes most effective to let them approach you. Once you have put some of these skills into motion, your teen will start to know they can rely on you and will learn to come to you with any conflicts in their life. If you are really concerned and they are not coming to you, you can always ask if they are doing okay and if there is anything they want to talk about but don’t come off as pushing too hard for them to speak up. That can work against you and cause them to close off even more.
- Check in with yourself during the conversation: Make sure your body language isn’t giving the impression that you are closed off (arms crossed, not looking at them in the eye) or that you are holding a judgment (expression on your face when they say something that elicits an emotion).
All these tips are things that will need some rehearsal so it is important to be patient once putting this into practice. It may be helpful to practice these skills on other people in your life before using them with your teen.
Johnson, S. B, Blum, R. W & Gleed, J. N. (2009) Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43 (3), 216-221.
Newman, B. M. & Newman, P. R. (2008) Development through life: a psychosocial approach. (10th ed.). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Publishing.
Sather, R. & Shelat, A. Understanding the teen brain. University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/