How to have a difficult conversation with your teenager

Last night I tried to talk to my teen son about his new relationship. I wanted to know how he met the girl he was texting all the time. I wanted to gauge if the relationship was real or just virtual and if it could go down a bad path. But when I began to ask questions, he shut me down. So when our guest blogger offered her take on how to have a difficult conversation with your teenager, I was thrilled for any tips I could get. Today we welcome Dr. Liz Barnett and I think you will agree she has great advice for us.

Here is her post:

Have you ever felt desperate to help your child get motivated and make a change?

It might be related to health, school, or even nicotine, alcohol or marijuana. 

Most of us can think of a time when we started a conversation like this and within less than 60 seconds our child had stormed out of the room.

About a year ago, I got a call from a mom whose college-aged daughter was moving back home. While away at school, her daughter had started drinking “socially” which resulted in academic problems. During high school their relationship had been difficult at home. Her daughter always complained of too many rules and being treated like a child. This mom was desperate to have things be different this time around.

Her own internet research about alcohol use led her to learn about a technique I embrace called Motivational Interviewing (MI), a collaborative communication style focused on supporting a person’s own motivation and commitment to change. 

She called me to help her with these skills to communicate better with her daughter. In addition to helping her with the basics of MI (we only had about a week before she would be picking her daughter up at the airport), I gave her the 7 Secrets to Navigating Difficult Conversations. While not officially a part of my Motivational Interviewing technique, these steps follow the same principles for respect and autonomy.

1. Give your teen advance notice before starting any difficult conversation.  Giving advanced notice ensures that everyone has time to prepare mentally and gives them the opportunity to share their thoughts on when would be best for them – morning, evening, weekend, after schoolwork, before schoolwork, etc.

2. Establish a length of time for the conversation that they can agree to (and stick to it). Establishing a length of time that is agreeable to both parties gives a clear end time, so no one has to worry that this conversation will go on forever. Like giving advanced notice, establishing a time frame together gives your teenager some autonomy and a sense of partnership.

3. Acknowledge your shared history that these conversations haven’t always gone well.  This is an opportunity to be humble and honest and address any elephants in the room.  In many situations, the problems (from the teen’s perspective) come from feeling judged or criticized and being “constantly” told what to do.

4. Share your intentions to be on their team, value their input, and respect that this is their life and ultimately, they get to decide. Sharing your intentions is a way to demonstrate that you are trying to do things differently as well as expressing genuine care, concern, love and respect. 

5. Give them permission to stop you if the “old patterns” are starting again. Allowing your teen to interrupt the conversation if they are feeling judged or criticized (or whatever else they identify as the problem) gives them power and again demonstrates your sincere effort to have a different kind of conversation.

6. Ask permission before giving your opinion, feedback, or advice.  Asking permission before giving advice, again, gives your teen power in the conversation. It demonstrates that you understand that they do not have to take your advice or even listen to it. Giving power back in these ways can make a huge difference in your teen’s willingness to consider what you have to say.

7. Learn motivational interviewing as a form of better communication. One way to do this is to subscribe to my newsletter for tips and strategies.

When the mother who reached out to me picked up her daughter at the airport, she was ready with these strategies. She let her daughter know she wanted to talk about how things would work at home sometime over the next few days.  Her daughter agreed to the conversation. When the day finally came, she started with sharing her intentions and acknowledging that things hadn’t always gone well in the past. They were off to a good start.

The mother asked permission to share her idea that they go to counseling together. Ultimately, her daughter agreed to family counseling as a way to navigate their new living arrangement. 

Motivational Interviewing is a non-confrontational approach to help navigate conversations about change. Since its inception in the 1980s, it has been used in a wide range of fields on myriad behaviors – everything from substance use, diet and exercise, and academic performance, to recycling and now social distancing. As I have found, and as you may too, the approach works well with teenagers.

Our post sponsor, Dr. Liz Barnett, is a mother of two, a professor, a consultant, a trainer and a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. She has been training professionals in Motivational Interviewing since 2005. She developed the on-demand, online training program called the MI Companion in 2018. You can follow her on Facebook or LinkedIn

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