Have you talked with your teen today?

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

You play an important role in shaping your teenager’s behavior. Teens who say their parents warned them about drug use and set clear rules are less likely to use drugs. Parents’ and teenagers’ morals, future aspirations, and self-control are typically quite similar. Talking encourages family togetherness and increases the likelihood teens will share parents’ values.

What teens want to talk about

Generally, teenagers are interested in conversations about the following issues:

  • Family issues. Teens want to participate in family decisions and told about family problems. They don't want to be sheltered.
  • Sex, drugs, and alcohol. Teens have questions like "What does sex feel like?" or "What does it mean to get high?"
  • Emotional concerns. Teens want to know how you really feel about things.
  • The big whys. Teens begin to have philosophical questions about issues like war and religion.
  • The future. Teens are curious and concerned about what they can expect from the future.
  • Current events. Teens have questions about what is going on in the world and in their community.
  • Personal interests. Teens really want you to show interest in their activities, music, sports, and friends.
  • Parents' lives. Teens are curious about what things were like when you were their age, including emotions you had and mistakes you made.

How to talk with your teen

"All she wants to do is go out with her friends and spend time alone in her room," you may be thinking. "How can I talk with my teen?" Here are some tips:

  • Don’t lecture or talk for hours. Keep conversations relaxed and be respectful of your teen’s time.
  • Don’t ambush your teen. Give him a heads-up that you would like to talk later that day or week.
  • If your teen tells you a secret, keep it.
  • Listen carefully to her concerns and feelings, and respect her views. Teens are often afraid of being lectured, punished, or misunderstood.
  • Stress that your teenager can and should make choices about his behaviors, and is responsible for these decisions.
  • Offer praise. Make a date to spend one-on-one time with your teen. Find something you both like to do.
  • Tell your teen you love him. With all the changes he’s going through, he needs to hear it now more than ever.

How to really listen to your teen

Your messages to your teen may not be as clear as you think. To make sure you and your child are having the same conversation, periodically repeat back what each other says. Then confirm understanding. Also, ask your teen what she wants to talk about. Teenagers often feel their parents aren’t listening and dominate conversations. Then they tune out.

For example, many parents say they have talked to their kids about drugs. But the majority of kids don’t remember these conversations. Also, parents need to be ready to talk when teens are, and not just when it is convenient for them.

Choose your battles

Research shows that only about 1 in 15 families have serious conflict that is harmful to the parent-teenager relationship. Typically, parents and teenagers argue over chores, curfew, and appearance. These are all issues that are not that important in the big scheme of things.

Parents need to choose their battles and decide what is worth fighting about. What would really happen if your child didn’t make his bed one morning? Wouldn't your energy be better directed towards issues like school, sex, drugs, or alcohol?

Resolve conflicts positively

One of your goals as a parent should be to resolve conflicts with your teen in a positive way. Teens are more agreeable when they know you're considering their needs and when they are part of resolving the issue.

Peaceful conflict resolution also teaches teens problem-solving skills. These are skills they will use outside the family and for the rest of their lives. Here are some tips for good problem solving:

  • Agree to treat each other with respect and listen to each other’s point of view. Set other ground rules as necessary.
  • Work to reach a mutual understanding. You should both have the opportunity to say what you think. Make sure the other person really gets what you’re saying.
  • Be polite and clear. Use “I statements,” such as “I feel _____ when you ____.”
  • Brainstorm as many possible solutions as you can together.
  • Pick the options you like best, see where your interests coincide, and negotiate a solution you both think is acceptable.

Keep in mind that arguments are very common in families with teens. Despite this, most studies show that teens love their parents and value their relationships with them.

Related resources

KidsHealthThe Nemours Foundation — KidsHealth provides information about health, behavior, and development from before birth through the teen years. As part of The Nemours Foundation's Center for Children's Health Media, KidsHealth also provides families with perspective, advice, and comfort about a wide range of physical, emotional, and behavioral issues that affect children and teens.

Talking with Kids About Tough IssuesChildren Now & Kaiser Family Foundation — A national initiative by to encourage parents to talk with their children earlier and more often about tough issues like sex, HIV/AIDS, violence, alcohol, and drug abuse.

ParentFurtherSearch Institute — A website to help families strengthen relationships through shared activities.

Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in family social science

Revised 2016 by the author

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