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Talking With Teens: A Critical Parenting Skill for the High School Years

Written by:  Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

Teenagers are endearing and interesting; but they can be challenging for their parents to deal with – for several reasons.  One of the reasons may be you.  You are most likely the person who changed their diapers not so very long ago.  It is difficult for you to believe that the child to whom you read Go Dog Go now wants to wear spike stilettos and black eyeliner.  It is hard to look upward into the face of the once tiny boy you used to take Trick or Treating.  Teens are undergoing enormous physical, mental, and emotional changes.  Their hormones are in an uproar.  Some researchers write that their brains will not be fully developed until they are in their twenties.  Midway between childlike innocence and apparent adult sophistication, their demeanor can be unreadable and their personalities as changeable as spring weather.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994) wrote that it is the primary developmental task of the 12 to 18-year-old person to discover who they are as individuals, separate from their family of origin.  This is why teens often align themselves with peer groups who seem all-important to them.  They may be preoccupied with what peers are wearing, what music they are playing, and how they themselves fit into a given group.  They are “trying on” identities.  They may change friends and groups if they find that they are at odds with the values and behaviors of either.  They may feel so different from their peers that they withdraw entirely until they find social connections later.  Remember…  this is their developmental task.  It is their “job”, and it is a hard job.

The problems that can arise during this developmental stage are complex.  What if their chosen peers are sexually promiscuous or addicted to alcohol or drugs?  Or goalless and unmotivated?  How far will your child go to fit in?  On the other hand, if teenagers do not find out who they are, they will not establish a clear identity.  They may never learn who they are.  So, to summarize, it is their job to define themselves as separate from you; and it is your job to make sure they do that safely and to structure that “identity crisis” (Erikson’s term).  This is the built-in conflict of the adolescent years.

This conflict must be mediated carefully.  When someone is two, we can, quite frankly, stop them from doing harmful or dangerous things.  When they are 12, it will be MUCH harder, and when they are 17 or 18, we can just forget it.  The best way to help them is to model consistently the behaviors we hope they will learn.  As Albert Schweitzer said,

Example is not the main thing in influencing others.  It’s the only thing. 

How we talk to this special age group is critical.  They are highly sensitive because their developmental task is difficult, and they frequently feel uncertain about whether or not they are achieving adulthood.  When you “talk down” to them, you make them fearful that they are not succeeding; this can destroy channels of communication and incite violence.  Here are some ideas that might make talking to teens easier:

  • Try to maintain an ongoing dialogue with your child.  If you have a heart to heart talk with your child only when you have something to criticize, don’t be surprised if he or she avoids you.  Ask about their day.  Say something about yours.  Try to share one or more of their interests; share some of yours with them.  Don’t wait until something has gone wrong to try to bridge the generation gap.
  • If you have a concern, think about it first.  Choose your battles carefully.  If you disapprove of everything, your disapproval of any particular thing will seem meaningless.  If you find nothing to praise in a young person, they might lose confidence and fail to develop into an integral and centered adult.  I, for example, am not going to make a big fuss about green or pink hair – hair will grow out – but when it comes to drugs, I am very clear about what my concerns are and what my experience as a therapist has been.
  • Be open and direct about what your concern is.  State it clearly and do not let it become a “lecture”.  Teens do not like to be lectured to.  I don’t either.  Here is an example of how to start a difficult conversation:

I know how much you love Peter and how long you have been friends.  You are such a loyal and caring person, and I am so proud of you.  What I am worried about is Peter’s drug use.  I am worried that the stress of school and peer group pressure might make it hard for you to resist doing what your friends are doing when you are having fun togetherNaturally, I can’t stop a 17-year-old from doing what they intend to do; but I would like for you to promise me that you will think carefully about this and that you will discuss it with me.

  • Listen to their response.  Listen respectfully.  You may learn something.  Sarcasm is inappropriate.  Again, If you talk “down” to someone who is trying to grow up, they may not listen.
  • Ask questions.  Show that you are hearing and considering what they are telling you.
  • Share relevant experiences from your own life that could illustrate why you are worried.

I remember when I was your age.  A close friend of mine since grammar school used cocaine for fun because her friends were doing it; but later she couldn’t stop.  She didn’t graduate, and it took her a long time to get clean and move on with her life.  She calls that period of time “the lost years”.


  • Set limits.  Explain what you will have to do if rules are not followed.  It is also important for teenagers to know why we are setting limits.  “Because I said so” is meaningless and may be interpreted as a power trip.  Tell them that you set rules and consequences because you love them and because you want them to be safe.

OK, I know… I know…  Sometimes they just won’t listen.  Here is a story about that:

Sixteen-year-old Alexandra asked her parents if she could have a tattoo.  Her parents said absolutely not.  A thoughtful and intelligent young woman, she prepared a presentation about tattoos to convince them.  Her report included the history of this ancient art and its use in indigenous, tribal, and modern cultures to display the symbols that human beings revere.  She included the symbol she had chosen for herself and an explanation of what it meant to her.  Her parents were impressed with her intellectual approach to the problem and the work she had done, and they told her so.  But… sorry — no tattoo.  Alexandra did not understand the reasons for their decision so, without their permission, she went out and got the tattoo.

If you like to read, you might like Erikson’s books about development.  One of them is Childhood and Society.  There are also some very good books about raising teenagers.  I like Kevin Leman’s Have a New Teenager by Friday.  The books are widely available.


If you are particularly anxious about your teenager, or if you think that their issues should be addressed professionally, please ask them to come and talk to us.  You can come, too, if you think

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