Keeping the Lines Open: Communicating With Your Preteens and Teens
By Christy Keating, J.D., Certified Parent Coach®
Preteens and teens are notorious for being challenging for adults to communicate with, and while this stereotype is certainly not always fair or true, certain difficult conversations will have many young people running for the proverbial hills.
As our preteens and teens grow, it is critical to have conversations with them around important subjects like sex, relationships, consent, drugs, alcohol, sexting, distracted driving, and other potentially risky behaviors, as well as more mundane things like homework. It is also important for our preteens and teens to identify who they can turn to when they need support, encouragement, feedback, accountability, and more, and for us to work hard to be (or remain) a member of that important team.
As adults, we have information, context, and risk analysis skills that our preteens and teens do not yet possess. But the wrong approach can shut our preteens and teens down entirely, leaving us with little opportunity to convey the information and guidance they need.
Below are some tips and tools for getting the most out of your communication with your young people as they mature:
The Big Picture: What To Avoid
- Don’t be judgy with your language.
Our preteens and teens do and say things that we just don’t get. They have opinions that differ from ours, and they make choices that we may not always agree with. However, when we bring judgment to our interactions with them, they shut down. They can sniff out that judgment from a mile away and it’s game over.
- Don’t lecture.
If our young people could just learn from our wisdom, right? There are so many things we know and would like our young people to know and understand. But when we talk at them rather than with them, they often put on what author Lisa Damour, Ph.D., calls a “veil of obedience”: they smile, nod, and appear to be listening, but they aren’t hearing a word we are saying. No one likes being lectured; our young people are no different.
- Don’t use fear tactics.
It is terrifying to be a caregiver — from the time they are toddlers to the time they are teens, it feels like there are a million different things we have to protect our young people from. Caregiver fear is big and real and hard to process, and there are, in fact, a lot of bad things that can happen to our young people. This is especially true for people of color and other marginalized groups in our society. But it is important to remember that our young people’s brains are undeveloped — their prefrontal cortex still has years to grow before it is complete — and they don’t assess risk and view situations in the same way we do. So, while our young people need to know the potential consequences for certain behaviors and activities, when we parent from a place of fear, or primarily use fear to motivate behavior, we are not only missing out on valuable opportunities to teach and connect, we are missing the mark with our preteens and teens, and projecting our fears onto them.
- Don’t dismiss their experiences.
A preteen’s or teen’s first relationship breakup, a B on a physics test, a sports injury, or a fight with a friend may not seem like a big deal to us, but it can feel like the end of the world to them. While we have the context to understand that these are just a part of the rollercoaster of life, our preteens and teens are regularly experiencing a lot of “firsts” that are hard to process. If we dismiss their experiences as trivial or their emotions as overblown, we send the clear message that we are not a safe harbor for them in a storm.
The Big Picture: What Works
- Do create open lines of communication.
This may feel obvious on the one hand, but hard to do on the other — that’s because it is. And yet, it is so, so important. Demonstrating time and again that we can listen, hold space, and provide love and guidance without judgment is what will help keep our preteens and teens talking to us. When we start early, and refuse to shy away from awkward, uncomfortable, difficult conversations, our young people come to understand that we are willingly walking on the path next to them and are available to listen and provide support.
- Do lean in with curiosity and the spirit of collaboration.
The power of the question should not be underestimated when talking with preteens and teens. By leaning in with the only goal being to discover who they are — to understand before we seek to be understood — we have the opportunity to deeply know our young people. While in conversation with them, consider asking yourself “what can I ask next” every time you feel inclined to interject your own thoughts, feelings, or opinions. “Why,” “How,” and “What do you think” are the golden tickets to connection, and can lead us to a space where we can collaborate with our preteens and teens to address issues that are coming up for them.
- Do offer respect and empathy.
Validate, validate, validate. There are few things that feel as good and unconditional as being validated in who we are and what we think. Recognizing that your young person has their own perspective and that, even when it differs from yours, it has value is deeply connecting. Consider the idea that your young person is deserving of your respect simply by virtue of their humanness, and work from there to build a relationship built on empathy and validation.
- Do empower them to do the right thing and trust them to do it.
As caregivers, we often spend a lot of time talking and teaching what is “right” but then don’t give our young people space to put that teaching into practice. When we begin to trust our preteens and teens as decision makers, authors William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson say in their book The Self-Driven Child, “we are giving them invaluable experience in assessing their own needs honestly, paying attention to their feelings and motivations, weighing pros and cons, and trying to make the best possible decision for themselves.” Our young people really are capable, and when our young people hear the message “I have confidence in you to do the right thing, or make the best decision for your life,” they are more likely to step up to the plate. That’s not to say there won’t be mistakes made, but if their competence muscle gets flexed often enough, the practice becomes reality.
- Do engage in dialogue not monologue.
In the vein of not lecturing, we should be wary of the monologue, focusing instead on building a back-and-forth dialogue with our preteens and teens. This may mean allowing silence to have its moment or probing with the next question, but when we can move through conversation with our young people rather than talking at them, they are more likely to willingly engage.
- Do let them arrive at their own conclusions.
As much as we might like to think so, our young people are not miniatures of us. They are whole and complete people with their own thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and experiences. When we can acknowledge and get comfortable with this, while leaving room for the fact that our preteens and teens may make decisions we disagree with, or have different values than we do, it is easier to keep them in conversation with us. This is the essence of a mutually respectful relationship — an exchange of ideas, and an acceptance of different viewpoints.
- Do provide guidance.
While it is important that we leave space for our preteens and teens to reach their own conclusions and settle on their own personal set of values about a wide variety of issues, we do still have an obligation as caregivers to share the reasons behind our own perspectives and values and invite our young people to consider them. To be influential, however, we must invite, not impose.
- Do invest in time with them.
Kids, preteens, and teens do better when they feel better — that is, when they feel more connected. Sometimes what we perceive as misbehavior is the result of our young person feeling disconnected in some way. It’s the way their still-developing brains communicate dysregulation. Young people tend to need love the most when they feel or act the most unlovable. Lean into their difficult behaviors and feelings, helping them feel valued, included, and loved, while still drawing consistent, loving boundaries and expectations for behavior. Help them learn self-regulation tools and teach them ways to express their emotions in safe and healthy ways. Designated one-on-one time each day/week with your young person (and other young people) is perhaps the most valuable investment you can make in your positive caregiving journey.
- Do use both a positive tone and emotion.
Our preteens and teens need to know we like, respect, and enjoy them! Show them that you are excited to see them and seek to find joy in the new and growing abilities your young person is gaining. This kind of emotion can’t be faked, however, preteens and teens are brilliant at seeing right through their caregivers, and when we fail to show up authentically, they know. Be sure to both use and model a positive tone and emotion. Ask yourself, do I tend to be neutral or positive about things when I am with my young person, or do I tend to be negative? Our emotions are contagious. Before diving into both everyday and difficult interactions, take a few breaths if you need to, and remember the things you love about them, so you can show up as a positive force in their lives.
- Do carefully choose the time and place.
We all have times and places we prefer for having significant conversations. For example, if we are in the middle of an important project for work, that is typically not the best time for our partner to initiate a conversation about our relationship. Our preteens and teens are no different. If they are in the middle of something important, or even just engaging and fun, they may be resistant to changing tracks and having a conversation about sex, relationships, alcohol, or something else important. When you want to have a meaningful conversation, choose your time and location carefully. Know your young person and intentionally engage them at a time when they are more likely to be receptive.
- Do parent “Outside the B.O.C.S.”
This acronym stands for Breathe, Observe, Connect, and Solve and provides a powerful framework for working through our challenges with our young people. Inside the box parenting includes things like traditional punishments, rewards, bribes, demands, and a “Because I said so” approach. When we parent “Outside the B.O.C.S.,” we step outside some of those more traditional approaches to maximize connection and effective problem solving with our kids.
When an issue arises, the framework reminds us that we first must make sure we are in control of ourselves — that our bodies and brains need to be calm.
- When they are not, we can use our breath as a way of self-regulating, because the ultimate goal is to invite our young people into our calm rather than joining their chaos.
- Next, we need to openly observe our preteen or teen to try to determine what the root of their struggle or dysregulation might be. It could be as simple as being hungry, or more complex like feeling alone or disempowered.
- Once we have some idea what might be going on for our young person, we can connect with them and work to confirm what we have observed. As we connect, we should seek to empathize, validate, and learn from them.
- Finally, once a connection is established, we can help them work through the issue by being in a collaborative partnership to engage them in solving their challenges, rather than dictating solutions. By working through this process, we can help our preteens and teens discover solutions that are intentional, empowering, and help them thrive.
For more information on “Parenting Outside the B.O.C.S.,” please visit
Some Specific Ideas:
- Just 2 minutes:
There are times in parenting that we have specific factual information we need our preteens or teens to know and understand, from the importance of using birth control to the risks of leaving a drink unattended at a party or bar. With a particularly resistant young person, we can say, “I know you don’t want to talk to me about this, but I just need two minutes of your time. You don’t have to respond, I just need you to hear me.” Once we have their attention, we can then quickly share the information we came to deliver and move on with our days — get in and get out. In using this approach, we should keep our soundbites short, sweet, and easy to digest.
- Jump into what matters to them:
Surprise your preteen or teen by doing something that matters to them. This can be playing their favorite music, preparing their favorite meal, or sitting down to play a game they enjoy. Little gestures can go a long way to make them feel valued and seen. Participating in activities that you both enjoy doing will keep you connected on a more social level, and will often provide unexpected opportunities for free-flowing conversation.
- Heads Up:
For slightly longer conversations, some young people need time to prepare themselves, so giving them fair warning can be helpful. To do this, we might say, “I recognize that this may be awkward/hard/embarrassing for you, but I need a few minutes of your time to talk about _______. Would you like to do that now, or would you prefer to do it later?” If they say “later” you can ask them to choose a time within the next 24 hours when you can connect with them. Alternatively, you can tell them to approach you when they’re ready, but remind them that if they don’t do that within a day, you’ll be back to have the conversation, regardless.
Another method for engaging preteens and teens is to send “public service announcements (PSAs)” periodically by text message. Many preteens and teens are more comfortable texting than talking, and although that may not be ideal in the real world, we can use that knowledge to our advantage. For example, “Here’s your Mom PSA for the day: sexually active teens have a 95% chance of causing/becoming pregnant within a year if birth control is not being used. I’ve placed a box of condoms in your bathroom. Please make sure to put some in your pocket/purse! Love you!”
- Car rides:
When we are in the car, our young people are essentially a captive audience. Use this time — when you don’t have to look face-to-face — to start conversations that may feel challenging for you, or where your young person may be resistant. Many preteens and teens are far more receptive when they do not have to look at you while talking.
Similar to being in the car, finding opportunities to initiate chats with our young people while doing something else can be a valuable tool. Rather than trying to sit down on the couch to talk to our young people, some caregivers may find a more willing participant if they engage in the conversation while walking, cooking, working around the house, or even sitting back-to-back. Not having to make eye contact reduces the stress and pressure for young people around tough subjects.
Purchase a notebook that you and your young person can use to write one another notes, ask questions, and do check-ins with one another. Let your young person know that they can ask you anything, tell you anything, or share any thoughts or feelings by writing it down and leaving the notebook on your bed. You can then respond with the agreement that you won’t discuss the subject-matter out loud unless they want to or are in any form of danger. This can provide some young people a safe way to open up, emote, and share without feeling “on the spot” by talking directly to you. As a caregiver, you can also use the notebook to share information, thoughts, and worries, and get to know your preteen or teen better.
Talking to preteens and teens can, without question, be hard. Sometimes that’s because we’re worried, unsure, or nervous, and sometimes it’s because they do their best to shut us down no matter what we try. Even when we know what to do, we will make communication mistakes with our kids — that’s a natural part of parenting. When those mistakes happen, like when we show up with too much judgment, fear, or slip into lecture mode, it’s important to recognize our errors, apologize and move on. We won’t always “get it right” or do it perfectly, but when we show up for our young people with a loving heart and open mind, we’ll get there in the end.