Every parent of a teenager knows how tricky giving advice can be sometimes. Teens still need your guidance, but they’re likely to resist receiving it. Psychologist Lisa Damour says, “First, teenagers bring us their problems; second, we earnestly offer suggestions and solutions; and third, teenagers dismiss our ideas as irritating, irrelevant or both.” Sound familiar? Keep reading. We’ll provide four steps to help you navigate tough conversations with your tween or teen and give advice they’ll actually listen to.
1. Start by just listening.
When your teen comes to you with a problem, Damour says it’s best to “start by assuming that they aren’t inviting suggestions, or at least are not inviting them yet.” Teens, like adults, often want someone to just listen while they talk through whatever is on their minds. Talking about a problem helps them organize their thoughts and process their emotions. If you jump in with advice too soon, teens may feel like you’re not listening and respond by getting angry or shutting down. Practice being your teen’s sounding board. Try listening a little longer than usual, and ask questions like, “Is there anything else you need to get off your chest?” You can also ask your teen to clarify what they need from you: “Is this a time when you need me to just listen, or do you want my help?”
2. Next, express empathy.
Parents feel a lot of pressure to have all the answers, but – spoiler alert – teens already know their parents aren’t perfect. When they come to you with a problem, they’re often seeking empathy instead of a solution. Empathizing lets teens know their feelings matter to you. Skipping the empathy and going straight to advice can leave them feeling alone, misunderstood, and likely to close down the conversation. Remember that developmentally, teens are experiencing lots of unfamiliar, intense emotions, and expressions of empathy can help them make sense of the uncertainty. Simple statements like, “That sounds really hard,” or “I completely understand why that upset you,” validate your teen’s feelings and let them know they have your unconditional support.
3. Ask what you can do to help.
If it feels like your teen’s brain is on autopilot to reject your advice, that’s because, well, it is. The process of individuation means teens are constantly, often subconsciously, testing the boundaries between themselves and their parents. Even your most well-intentioned and reasonable advice may sound – to them – like you’re telling them what to do, and they may reject it just to prove a point. A simple workaround is to respond with questions instead of statements – especially, “What can I do to help?” “Sometimes the best you can do is ask, ‘What can I do?’” says parenting blogger Edie Meade. “Your child may not know any more than you. They may not think they need your help. But in asking the question, a parent is extending their hand… In lieu of certainty, you offer support, sensitivity, and love.”
4. Finally, provide ideas and options.
The way you deliver advice has a big impact on your teen’s willingness to receive it. Think about how you can provide them with the tools to solve their own problems or be a partner in problem-solving, rather than trying to solve problems for them. Saying “You should ask your teacher if you can retake the test,” will cause teens to tune out faster than asking, “What do you think your teacher would say if you asked to retake the test?” You can also ask if they’d like your help brainstorming solutions, coming up with a list of pros and cons, or talking through potential outcomes. Or try the phrase, “I have an idea about that if you’d like to hear it.” Each of these responses demonstrates that you trust your teen, value their feelings and independence, and are there for support. When teens know you’re confident that they can solve their own problems, they’ll be more willing to listen to what you have to say. With the right approach, you can become your teen’s trusted confidant and guide them towards making wise choices for themselves.