In Summary
  • When parents have something to say that they really want teenagers to hear, these approaches can help get the message across.
  • As much as we might want to simply tell our teenagers what to do, we equally know that doing so won’t serve them well in the long run.
  • Citing our own adolescence can be a conversation killer, since our kids often reject the premise that their teenage years have anything in common with ours.

If there’s anything adults are always eager to share with our teenagers, it’s our own hard-earned wisdom. But why do our well-meaning efforts to advise our teenagers often get a chilly reception?

Usually, it’s because we’ve got our attention trained on the wrong thing: the thoughts we’re hoping to pass along, and not how it feels to be on the receiving end of such lessons. When you have something to say that you really want your teenager to hear, these approaches can help get your message across:

Ask permission

The most powerful force in a normally developing teenager may be the drive toward independence. Unsolicited coaching — even when it is excellent and well-intentioned — goes against the adolescent grain.

An easy fix? Before dropping knowledge on your child, ask permission. In practical terms, this might be saying, “Hey, I found this interesting article on managing digital distractions. Do you want to take a look at it?” If you find your teenager grousing about a problem for which you have a solution, try, “I’ve got an idea that might help. Do you want to know what I’m thinking?”

According to Vanessa Cánepa-Prentice, a 17-year-old from Seattle: “When parents ask if we’d like to hear what they have to say, we just might be open to it.” Should your teenager decline your pearls of wisdom, don’t press it, and don’t get discouraged. We often strengthen our connections with young people when we find ways to honour their autonomy.

Lose “when I was a teenager ..."

Adolescents tend to tune out anything that comes after “When I was a teenager... ” Indeed, my own informal surveys have taught me that young people find uttering these five words to be the second most annoying thing parents routinely do. (The first? Entering a closed room to address the teenager therein, then neglecting to shut the door on the way out.)

Citing our own adolescence can be a conversation killer, since our kids often reject the premise that their teenage years have anything in common with ours. On this they’ve got a point. We did not come of age while submerged in digital waters, and what we accomplished as high school students pales in comparison to what many young people now achieve, such as the demanding course loads that many of today’s high school students take on.

Even when addressing the timeless aspects of adolescence, reminiscing aloud may not be prudent. Though teenagers are often unfairly critiqued, it is true that adolescence can be a phase of marked egocentrism.

As a psychologist, I have learned that teenagers — who may regard their travails as singular and unprecedented — sometimes dismiss even compassionate efforts to draw parallels between anyone else’s experiences and their own. This goes double when that anyone else is a parent. Be sure to focus on the here and now for your teenager, not there and then for you.

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