Teenagers today are constantly facing pressure to make decisions about sex, drugs, alcohol, and their futures. As a parent, having discussions with your teenager about these complicated subjects can be a great way to help them make good choices. However, these conversations can also be difficult to initiate on either side. According to Planned Parenthood, only about 50% of teenagers feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex. How do you make these conversations easier to start to prevent your child from engaging in risky behaviors?
The best place to start is by creating a home environment where there is open communication, so that kids can ask about these topics instead of turning outward for answers. Teenagers who are closer to their parents have been shown to do better in school, exhibit fewer dangerous behaviors, and have better mental, social, and emotional health. In order to help your kid stay safe and happy, consider opening up a line of positive communication that can help you talk to them about serious issues and concerns when needed.
Make Time for Quality Time
In order to get conversation flowing between you and your teen, start by spending some quality time with them. Both you and your teenager may be very busy. Work, school, extracurriculars, and other commitments may make it seem as though there’s no time left to spend with your teenager. However, it’s important to prioritize creating moments where the two of you can connect. One very simple way to gain some minutes with your kid is to arrange family meals. We all have to take time out of our schedule to eat, so sitting down together over dinner provides a nice time for you and your child to talk, connect, and catch up.
If you can, carve out time to do other activities with your teen. Hanging out and relaxing with them can be a great way to start up conversations and bond. Going on a hike or seeing a movie together can give you time to develop a common ground. Nervous about asking your teenager to do something with you? Just be approachable and friendly. Here’s an example.
“Hey! I feel like it’s been a while since we hung out or talked. I was wondering if you would want to watch a movie or go to lunch. You can pick the movie or restaurant!”
Breaking the Ice
Once you guys are spending time together, this is a great time to bring up something that they might be interested in to get conversation flowing. By focusing on them and their interests, it might be easier to get them to open up. This could be anything from movies, books, and music to their favorite subject in school. Try asking general, open ended questions like,
“What kind of things have you been learning about this year in school?”
“What is something you’ve really enjoyed doing recently?”
By keeping things open-ended, you have the chance to let your child choose what or what not to tell you about. By listening and keeping an open mind instead of making assumptions, you are allowing them to feel more comfortable and giving them the chance to trust you with information about their lives. If you can do your best to refrain from making judgements or putting down their ideas, they will feel much safer down the line when talking about more serious topics.
In addition, this time is valuable for making vital connections with your teenager and having fun! Don’t be afraid to share with them the things you did when you were their age, or find other ways that you connect to their interests. My mom and I both love to read. Reading is a huge part of our relationship, and we often buy each other books as presents. By keeping up with what the other is reading, we keep up with what is going on in the other’s lives.
Initiating More Serious Conversation
Once there’s a level of communication established between the two of you, it can make it a lot easier to bring up issues like sex or drugs that you may want to inform them about. It could be good to set up a specific time to talk about these issues so that they know the discussion will be a little different than usual. For example try something like:
“What are you doing Wednesday night around 7:00 PM? There’s a few things I wanted to talk about. Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. I just have some things I want to set some time aside to discuss.”
It’s important not to sound threatening or accusing. Instead, portray a feeling of care and mutual respect. Try to make it feel as though the two of you are on the same level, and that they are free to contribute to the discussion at any point. They may not agree to talk if it seems as though you are sitting them down to assert your beliefs. Instead, make it clear that you are encouraging conversation between the two of you.
When it comes to initiating a topic, say, confronting them about a suspected drug use, it might be better not to start in with an accusatory tone. Instead, by maintaining the same warm tone which was used when talking about less serious things, you can show them that you are there to listen and help, not criticize. You can even start out the talk by bringing up another, more light-hearted topic that the two of you have talked about previously. If you’ve built those connections, these familiar topics can remind your child that you’re their friend, not a threatening authority figure or a boss. By starting simple and gradually moving the conversation along, you can ease into discussing something serious without frightening them.
While it may seem challenging to talk to your teenager about these difficult topics, it all starts with establishing a basic line of communication. If your teenager feels comfortable expressing themselves and sharing how they feel on a regular basis, initiating serious conversations can be much easier.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.