This is the third article in a five-part series on communicating with teens.
Read part one here: Tips for communicating with teens: Your responsibility to communicate well 
Read part two here: Tips for communicating with teens: Modelling respect, humility and forgiveness
Read part four here: Tips for communicating with teens: Handling conflict
Read part five here: Tips for communicating with teens: Teaching teens how to think, not what to think

Section 7: How to unlock your teen's brain

All quotations in this section are excerpted from our broadcast Understanding How Your Teen Thinks. Married authors Jeramy and Jerusha Clark share important insights about teens’ changing brain chemistry.

Neurological pruning in your teen’s brain

“While researching neuroscience for our book Your Teenager Is Not Crazy, we discovered that there’s pruning happening neurologically in an adolescent’s brain. And this pruning is called arborization. There’s a specialization that’s happening in the brain. And as this process takes place, it literally creates chaos. Based on this physical reality, based on what’s happening, we can have greater compassion, greater understanding, and we can parent better based on this information.”

Understand the power of shorter conversations

Because your teen’s brain is still developing, it’s important to have shorter and more frequent conversations.

  • “Think of it like Jesus dropped parables, little stories. They were more like a pebble in someone’s shoe than a lecture. They just kind of stuck with people. People walked around, and the story was still in their mind.

    “And that’s what, as parents of teenagers, we should think of our conversations: as dropping a little stone in a lake, and it ripples out. Once the water is calm again, we drop another stone in, and that ripples out. And then again. It’s this idea that, hopefully, as their brain is able to take in these shorter and more frequent conversations, the information will really gel.” 

Accept that you can’t control your teen

You can only control how you react. And you can be intentional about recognizing the subtext of conversations with your teen.

  • “When your teenager says, ‘Just leave me alone,’ think, ‘Okay, I gotta put my hard hat on here rather than retaliate.’ Or think about when your teenager says, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Understanding that their ability to evaluate facial expressions is radically different than that of an adult helps you to just take a moment to breathe and think, ‘How can I change my behaviour?' ”

Don’t assume you know what your kids are thinking

In trying to figure out what are teens are thinking, it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on expectations, experiences or even our own upbringing.

  • “When we’re interacting with our teens, we can jump to conclusions, and we’re already prescribing, we’re making statements, we’re correcting, and we’re adjusting their behaviour. But if we’re not careful, we’re just seen as somebody our teens want to avoid because we are always prescribing for them what they have to do differently, what they’re doing wrong. Our teens will receive (decode) what we’re saying as that we’re upset with them and don’t like them.”

Realize that the adolescent brain is hyper-rational

Another aspect of adolescent brain development is hyper-rational thinking. In short, when teens assess something potentially dangerous, they tend to underestimate that threat and overestimate the possibility of excitement.

  • “They may think, ‘This car race could kill me. But it might turn out to be incredibly epic!’ That’s why it’s important for us as parents to ask our teens to think about things and evaluate the consequences. Because as we ask the questions, they’re thinking.”

And asking questions is one of the most powerful tools parents have when it comes to connecting with their teens.

Section 8: How to ask your teen questions in the right way

When we ask, listen and respect, we stimulate our teen’s prefrontal cortex. That area of the brain isn’t mature in teenagers, but asking questions forces the prefrontal cortex to engage and develop. That said, whether we ask a silly question or a serious question, we have to ask it in the right way.

The gift of open-ended questions

To deepen connection, avoid closed-ended questions that only allow for a yes or no answer.

Instead, ask open-ended questions that make our teens pause, think and reflect: what, why, how, describe, tell me about, what do you think about.

With open-ended questions, the person asking the questions releases control of the conversation to the person answering. In other words, open-ended questions help create two-way dialogue where teens are encouraged to express their thoughts, feelings and opinions more freely.

Jeremy and Jerusha Clark point out, “If your teenager’s ranting, they probably expect you to say, ‘Stop that.' ”

  • “Instead, say, ‘Tell me more about it,’ or ‘Why do you think that happened?’ or ‘What is, in your opinion, the best solution?’ They are expecting you to give them the solution. But you’re asking them to engage their prefrontal cortex.

Here are some tips for asking open-ended questions effectively.

Start with “What,” “How” or “Why”

These question starters are great for encouraging teens to provide detailed responses. For example, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy the movie?” you could ask, “What did you find interesting about the movie?”

Show genuine curiosity and interest

“If we’re asking questions about [our teen’s] day because we feel obligated, they’ll know it,” says Dr. Kathy Koch in Your Teens Need You, Not More Screen Time. “If we’re talking with them to get it over with so we can move onto something else, they’ll feel it.”

So, demonstrate a sincere desire to understand your teen’s perspective. Don’t just listen with your ears; focus on your teen’s whole body. Make eye contact. Smile and nod. Mirror or repeat back what your teen says to show you’re paying attention.

“Engaging intentionally with our kids helps them feel safe, seen and loved,” writes author Linda Goldfarb. “When we gift our child with an attentive ear, he will return with conversations we never thought possible.” (Check out questions to ask kids in the article 100+ Mealtime Questions.)

Don’t be afraid of silence

Teens sometimes need time to gather their thoughts before responding. That silence can feel awkward, but resist the urge to fill the quiet spaces. Instead, give your teen the chance to form and share their ideas. You can help the conversation along with occasionally saying something like, “You might be thinking . . .” or “This might raise the question of . . .”

Ask follow-up questions

When your teen offers an initial response, follow up with additional questions. For example, if they mention they enjoyed a particular book, you could ask, “What about it did you find most interesting?”

In addition to helping you connect with your teen, this kind of “digging deeper” helps them learn to relate to others. And that’s an important part of strong relational intelligence.

Encourage storytelling and personal experiences

Asking about personal experiences can support engagement and help teens connect with a topic. For instance, instead of asking, “Did the game go well today?” you could say, “I’d love to hear what you thought was the strangest/funniest/hardest moment of today’s game.”

Check your tone

Create a safe, non-judgmental environment where your teen feels comfortable expressing themself. Remember: You’re working to build two-way conversation, not interrogate your teen. Don’t criticize their opinions or ideas, even if they differ from your own (and we’ll talk more about that in the upcoming section on teaching your teen how to think, not what to think).

Instead, use active listening. “Active listening doesn’t judge everything that comes out of your child’s mouth,” says mom Cheri Fuller.

  • “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t know why you feel so angry,’ say, ‘It sounds like you’re mad and hurt. I understand that.’ Let your child know he’s heard before you offer a solution.”

Avoid leading questions

Do your best to keep your questions neutral and unbiased. For instance, instead of asking, “Don’t you think that was unfair?” you could ask, “How do you feel about the situation?”

Parents can’t always stay neutral, of course. You still need to set appropriate boundaries, and you must protect your teen if you see an imminent threat to their safety and well-being. But to the extent you can, ask questions to help develop your teen’s problem-solving skills. Do your best to stay calm and help them think through a situation.

As an example, Jerusha Clark shares in our broadcast Understanding How Your Teen Thinks about a time when her 14-year-old daughter was invited by a senior to go drinking.

  • “I was so grateful she told me. But of course, I’m freaking out. I said, ‘Well, why do you think this young man asked you to do that?’

    And she said, ‘Well, I think he thinks that’s what’s fun.’

    I said, ‘You know, you’re probably right. Do you know if this person knows God?’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I tried to stay as calm as possible. Of course, my emotions are right on the surface, but I’m trying to take one step at a time.

    Finally, she came to a conclusion and said, ‘You know what I want to do? I want to start praying for him.’ ” (Edited for clarity­.)

Respect your teen’s boundaries

Your teen might feel uncomfortable with open-ended questions until they know they can trust your intentions. And even then, they might not want to share about certain parts of their lives.

Respect their boundaries and let them decide how much they want to disclose. You can explain why you’re asking a question, rephrase it or just save it for another time.

Next up: Part Four Tips for communicating with teens: Handling conflict

© 2023 Focus on the Family. Used with permission.

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