This is the fifth 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 three here: Tips for communicating with teens: Helping your teen think clearly
Read part four here: Tips for communicating with teens: Handling conflict

Section 11: Teach your teen how to think, not what to think

God’s Word reminds us to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Part of helping your teen mature and communicating well with them is teaching them how to identify emotions and how to constructively handle them. “It’s problem-solving. It’s strategizing. It’s critical thinking,” says counsellor David Thomas.

And that lays the foundation for an important part of building strong communication: teaching your teen how to think instead of what to think (typically what you want them to think). In short, you need to help them become critical thinkers. Don’t assume your teen will learn these skills anywhere else.

Learn to be curious with your children

The first step in the critical-thinking process, says mom Cathy Edwards, is wonder. “By wondering, we create a habit of observing, which leads to analyzing.”

  • “My children and I made an I Wonder book. We jotted down questions about daily observations. We didn’t answer any of the questions. Instead, we wondered out loud, talking together and brainstorming possible answers. If a certain question led to serious interest and conversation, we might get books on the topic or research it online.”

Even if you didn’t form this habit when your kids were younger, it’s never too late to start! Teens are still curious – just probably about issues deeper than how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.

Don’t be afraid of your teen’s questions or statements

Things are not good in our society when it comes to teenage culture,” observes Dr. Gary Chapman, “and parents have a right to be concerned.” We need to be invested in our teens enough to pay close attention to what’s going on in their world.

Even so, teacher Ray Vander Laan points out that Christians sometimes are “hesitant to really get to know the culture well around us.”

  • “I run into people who will say, ‘I don’t read anything I don’t agree with,’ or ‘I don’t watch anything I don’t agree with.’ And I realize there’s a time and place to avoid sin and temptation. But I think we need to know our culture really well. We need to know our culture so well that we know how to speak God’s truth in their language.”

The same is true as you build a connection with your teen. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Rather, know your child so well that you can speak God’s truth in their language. Engage them. Not to criticize but to know how to reach them and figure out where they might be misunderstanding or lacking knowledge.

Expressing an interest in something your teenager is into doesn’t mean you agree. You’re not surrendering your values. Rather, it boils down to the tips we’ve talked about earlier in this piece:

  • Be a safe place. Let your teen process their thoughts and feelings. Even if they don’t share your values, you can have respectful conversations and find common ground.

  • Ask questions, and be a good listener.

  • Offer to learn alongside them. Take time to learn about what your child is interested in or struggling with. You might not have all the answers, but you can offer to learn with them!

Ask your teen what they think is the wise thing to do

“Instead of issuing directions and telling them how to approach a certain situation,” suggests Carol Cuppy, “ask them what they think they should do. Then, based on their answer, you can guide them into making wise decisions.”

Teach your teen how to renew their mind

“Renewing the mind is a day-to-day process of thinking biblically,” says author Marc Fey. “The world is full of counterfeit truth claims, but you can teach your teen to live according to God’s reality.”

Again, it’s not about forcing your values or beliefs on your teen. Instead, it’s about sharing your own faith journey so your teen sees the power of God working through your story. They need to see you renew your mind as you engage with and understand people whose values don’t align with yours – even people within the church.

Parents, say Jeramy and Jerusha Clark, must continue to have these conversations and grow themselves.

  • “And that’s at the heart of challenging ourselves to continue to press in and trust God. We need to pray like never before that God would help us gear up for the conversations that we need to have.” (Edited for clarity.)

Explain confirmation bias to your teen

Confirmation bias (something we all have) is the tendency to look for, pay attention to, and believe information that supports our existing beliefs or ideas. It means we tend to favour things that confirm what we already think – and tend to ignore, deny, dismiss or distort evidence that goes against our beliefs.

Explain to your teen that they can think of confirmation bias like wearing sunglasses that make everything look a certain colour. If they’re wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, for example, everything they see will look bluer to them.

In a similar way, confirmation bias can make us see things in a way that supports what we already believe – even if it’s inaccurate or harmful. Critical thinking minimizes confirmation bias.

Teach the difference between correlation and causation

Two things might be associated with each other, but that doesn’t mean one causes the other. Help your teen learn to look for a third option.

People tend to see issues as black and white, either this or thisThat thought process is called binary thinking, and it can work in fields like biology and engineering. But it doesn’t work for all of life. If we look at everything in an either/or way, we can miss the truth – because truth is often found in middle ground, where both this and this have a place.

Our staff counsellors emphasize that this is also important for us as moms and dads to embrace. We need to be willing to look for third options, too! A good example? The discussion about college:

  • “One of the most common sources of conflict for parents and teens is what comes after high school. We might be tempted to panic and think that our teen will be ruined if they don’t pursue higher education.

    “How can you remind yourself that there’s a difference between correlation and causation on this issue and help your teen discover a ‘third option’?

    “Don’t try to convince (or worse, force) your teen to attend college. Instead, lay out all the options. Help your teen understand the different available opportunities such as community college, online certifications, vocational school, an internship or apprenticeship, military service, working full-time for a while, or taking a year off (often called a gap year) to volunteer or to live and work in a foreign country.

    “If your teen chooses not to attend college right after graduation (or ever!), the world won’t end.”

Help your teen incorporate different points of view

When your teen comes to you with a hypothesis, statement or argument for a specific topic, ask them to find and show you the research – facts – that led to your teen’s conclusion.

Don’t condemn or preach against things you don’t agree with. Don’t outright forbid your teen from watching or listening to something you don’t understand or agree with. Don’t shut them down when they wonder about getting a tattoo. Don’t launch into a fiery sermon when they tell you they’re struggling with their faith in Christ.

Instead, listen, listen and listen some more. Walk them through the process of critical thinking. “This is where you’re going to have greatest impact,” says Dr. Gary Chapman.

  • “For example, they may get into another religion and study it deeply and come home talking about it. Rather than just saying, ‘Well, that’s wrong and the Bible doesn’t teach that,’ listen to them. Walk with them through that. Let them tell you what they’re learning. And then you start reading about that religion so you can interact intelligently with them.”

Encourage creative problem-solving and set the example

Let your teen hear your thought process as you think critically. Let them see you work through how to solve a problem. Trouble-shoot challenges together. And give your teen achievable challenges. For example, ask them to plan part of the family vacation, including making any necessary reservations.

Let your teen fail

Teens can’t become responsible adults without failing and learning how to handle that failure. Don’t rush in to fix things for them. Come alongside them to help them find a way to solve the problem. As long as your teen won’t suffer physical harm or permanent emotional damage, let them experience the consequences of bad choices.

Dig into principles of critical thinking

The topic of critical thinking is too broad to cover in this limited space. So we urge you to spend time listening to our program guests who specialize in finding common ground with people and pointing them to the truths of Christ. These speakers know what it takes to present a compelling, clear, logical argument.

Focus on the Family broadcasts that give examples of critical thinking:

Reasons to Believe in Jesus
Investigating the Eyewitness Accounts of Jesus Christ
Preparing Teens to Bring Peace to Their Chaotic World

Outside organization videos and articles about critical thinking:

Also, you might want to consider the following resources about general principles of critical thinking and debate. (Note: Links to secular organizations don’t mean that their content necessarily aligns with Focus on the Family Canada’s perspective in all areas. We offer them for informational purposes only.)

11 principles of critical thinking
12 Cognitive Biases Explained: How to Think Better and More Logically
Critical Thinking for Kids
Developing Critical Thinking in Teens
Six Principles of Scientific Thinking in Psychology

Section 12: Stick with your teen

No parent is perfect. And even good parents can learn how to connect with their son or daughter in deeper, more meaningful ways. Teenagers need a lot – freedom and responsibility and encouragement and boundaries. But mostly, they need you!

We need to be humble, teachable, courageous and other-centred,” says Dr. Kathy Koch.

  • “We need to be diligent and follow through to establish new communication patterns. [The effects] probably won’t be immediate or easy or comfortable. But our teens are worth the effort.”

And we’re here to help.

If you’d like to share more of your story, call Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department at 1.888.937.1626 for a free, one-time, over-the-phone consultation. Our professional counsellors would be honoured to listen to you, pray with you and offer biblical wisdom. They can also suggest referrals to qualified counsellors and Christian therapists in your area.

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© 2023 Focus on the Family. Used with permission.

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