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Talking to your teenager: 5 tips to engage with your child

Rebecca Sparrow made it her life’s mission to help teenagers survive high school and all that their tumultuous teen years throw at them. Here; Rebecca offers her tips for better teen talks if you’re a parent.


Rebecca Sparrow
November 2019

I can remember my teenage years like they were yesterday.

I remember feeling hopeful, awkward, vulnerable, excited, fragile and bold.

I remember being in love with boys who never knew I existed. Laughing so hard with my friends that tears ran down my face. Hating everything about how I looked.

Here’s another memory.

From age 15, I worked in a popular department store, and one morning my beautiful mum popped in to visit me at work. Mum and I are very close but it’s fair to say we look nothing alike. When she left, my manager asked, “So was that your mum?” “Yes,” I replied. “So is your dad fat?” he said.

I knew exactly what he meant. I was devastated.

When I got home, I was in a foul mood. I was rude and grumpy to my parents – even though we were close. I didn’t tell them a word of what had happened that day or how it made me feel. I kept it to myself. I was gutted.

Thirty-one years later I still remember that moment with my boss and how much it hurt.

As parents we so often take our tween or teen’s grumpy, cranky, cantankerous behaviour personally. We wonder why our kids are in such dark moods when they get home from school; why they grunt or mumble at us.

When this happens, it can be helpful for us as parents to remember what those years were like for us and consider things from their point of view.

Our teens are fragile and vulnerable about who they are. Sometimes saying out loud what has gone down during the day is just too humiliating or painful for them – even if we're good listeners.

Communicating with your teen: How can we build better teen connections?

We can actively choose to make home a soft place to fall. We can work harder to listen more than we talk and to give our kids the time and attention they crave from us. We can forge relationships in which our kids feel comfortable coming to us with their mistakes and bad judgement calls, and we can hold back on judging them for their missteps.

When our teenagers lean out – for a whole range of reasons – let’s consciously lean in.

Even more important, let’s nurture connections with our kids as early as possible. If we want them to talk to us, to come to us with their worries when they’re teens, we need to start opening the lines of communication when they’re younger.

Here are my five top tips for cracking that communication barrier in the early years and laying the groundwork for meaningful engagement during those joyful, tumultuous teenage times.

  1. Ask kids to rate their day

    How often do we ask our kids, “How was your day?” only for them to mumble, “Fine”? The truth is that kids don’t always have the language to articulate the complexity of how they’re feeling, so those feelings get bottled up. Instead, try asking your son or daughter to regularly rate their day between one and 10. A number out of 10 gives you an easy snapshot of how they’re feeling. If they say school is a four out of 10, ask them, “What do we need to do to get you from a four to a five, or even a six?” I learned this gem from Jono Nicholas, ex-CEO of ReachOut Australia.

  2. Use a parent/child journal

    Remember being a kid or teen and wanting to talk to your parents about something but desperately not wanting to make eye-contact with them?  That’s where a shared journal can help. It’s just a simple notebook where your tween or teen can write to you about what’s worrying them, rather than chat to you face-to-face.

    When the journal appears on your bedside table, you know there’s a message waiting for you. And the rule is that you’re not allowed to talk to your teen in person about whatever they’ve written in the journal (unless they bring it up). Instead, write back with your response or advice.

    Buy a journal or create your own. Other ways to have indirect chats might be going for a drive or a walk together. Some kids I know prefer having big conversations while they’re playing pool!

  3. Show your love off-camera

    One minute our kids are reaching for our hands as we walk them to school, and the next we’re being asked to drop them at the corner. Ouch. But just because our kids shun affection and acts of love in public, it doesn’t mean they don’t still want the warmth.

    Try to show your love ‘off-camera’. Rather than gushy hugs and kisses in front of their friends, try a tender note in their lunchbox, a hot chocolate in their room after a stressful day, or a copy of their favourite magazine on their bed. And never forget the power of touch – a ruffle of your child’s hair or a squeeze of their shoulder can have its own deep power.

  4. Avoid big conversations in high-conflict moments

    Another terrific tip from ReachOut is to avoid big conversations when tempers are flared. Instead, make a time with your teen after school or on a weekend to chat at a café.

    Having a 45-minute chat over cake and a milkshake about their social media use, screen time, friendship choices or study habits, is a better approach than bringing up these bugbears during an already heated moment the night before a big test.

  5. Know when to be the cheerleader, not the coach

    I love this advice from author Gretchen Rubin: Sometimes kids need us to be the coach, offering advice on what to do and how to proceed. But other times? Our kids are making their own decisions and choices, and what they need is for us to be their cheerleaders on the sidelines, wishing them well and preparing to offer comfort and support should things go pear-shaped.

If you or your child or teenager needs urgent mental health support or emotional assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Parenting teens expertise I recommend:



Author: Rebecca Sparrow

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