This is the first article in a five-part series on communicating with teens.
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
Read part five here: Tips for communicating with teens: Teaching teens how to think, not what to think

How successful are your conversations with your teen – the really important conversations? Perhaps you can relate to the frustration these parents are describing:

We know what we need to talk about with our son, such as life skills, the truth about porn, substance abuse and God’s design for sex. But we don’t know how to talk to him about these tough topics or anything else, to be honest. Any conversations we do have end with us nagging him – and him giving us one-word answers and slamming the door to his room. We know that’s not what healthy communication looks like, and we need better tools and techniques to help us connect.

The world and culture are increasingly complex, and parents need to proactively stay on top of issues important to their teens’ health – spiritually, mentally, and physically. With so much at stake, how can you build strong communication with your teen?

In this five-part article series, we'll share insights from the counselling team at Focus on the Family in the U.S. and from parenting experts we’ve had as authors and broadcast guests. We only have space in these articles to take a broad look at twelve important areas.

Section 1: The teen struggle for independence

Before we dive into tips for communicating with your teen, we want to camp for a minute on one piece of the puzzle behind a lot of common parent-teen struggles: Teens have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. Therapists even have a term for this: developmental individuating.

Developmental individuating

Developmental individuating means that your child is becoming their own person. They’re gaining independence and getting ready to launch out on their own. And that process of your teen separating from you is normal, natural and necessary.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean navigating constant change during the teenage years is easy. In fact, says Dr. Kara Powell, as your teen moves away from you – kicks against you (in the figurative sense) – you  might “feel a little dented, a little bruised, a little cracked.”

But you can be a wall, says Powell. Be a wall that won’t move so that when your teen is ready to come back, they know you’ll be there for them. Learn to work through the changes by understanding what’s yours to control and what isn’t. And one of the things you can control – as you already realize – is your communication style and strategy.

Note: This five-part article series is directed to parents and teens working through normal struggles of healthy teenage autonomy. If your teen is in crisis or is blatantly rebellious (whether from substance abuse, mental health issues, violent behaviour or other concerns), reach out for professional help.

Section 2: An overview of two-way communication

A child’s brain develops best through regular, back-and-forth exchanges of ideas with their parents. And while it’s best to establish strong communication when your child is young, it’s never too late to start.

Back-and-forth, two-way communication is interactive dialogue. It means taking turns talking and listening. You listen to each other, you gather information, and you work together toward a common goal or solution. We’ll dig into all of this at length, but right now, let’s talk about the two basic parts of communication.

The roles of encoding and decoding

In short, communication happens when a message is sent (encoded) by one person and received (decoded) by another.


Encoding (sending) is about the actual words of a sender as well as their vocal tone, voice inflection, and nonverbal cues: eye contact, hand gestures, and facial expressions.


Decoding (receiving) is about how the receiver interprets and understands the words said as well as how they’re said. (Note that understanding and accepting a message isn’t the same thing as agreeing with it.)

How communication gets derailed

There typically are four ways that communication (the message) can get derailed:

  • The message is never sent.
    This can happen if the sender assumes the receiver already knows the information.

  • The message is sent but not encoded in an understandable way, so it’s not received.
    This can happen if parents use words that are beyond a child’s current understanding, or if the message itself is presented in a confusing way.

  • The message is received but not understood or accepted.
    This can happen when your teen understands what you’re saying but doesn’t understand the logic or the reasoning behind your words. Additionally, your teen might understand exactly what you mean but doesn’t accept your point of view.

  • The message is received, understood and accepted – but no action is taken.
    If this happens, it’s no longer about a communication breakdown. Instead, it’s about a motivational or behavioural problem.

A parent’s responsibility to communicate well

As a parent, you’re primarily a sender when it comes to communication. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to be a wise receiver (and we’ll talk more about that later). But overall, you have four main responsibilities in your role:

  • Understand what you really want to communicate. Be clear and intentional with your message. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it.

  • Make sure your tone and nonverbal cues line up with your intended message.

  • Understand the context in which your child (the receiver) will most likely place the message. This means being aware that your child is living in a different social culture than you. Words don’t mean the same thing. Your teen’s attitudes and beliefs about things likely aren’t the same as yours, and that creates a different filter for how they hear and decode what you want to communicate.

  • Be aware of your child’s (the receiver) words, tone, context and non-verbal cues when they give feedback about the message you’ve sent. Be so in tune with your child that you can understand the meaning behind what they actually say. (By way of examples, children under 13 tend to be concrete in their thinking patterns, and teens begin to think more abstractly. Some children speak in quiet tones, while other children seem oblivious to how loud they are even when they’re calm. And some children over-interpret eye contact or a lack of it.)

These responsibilities rest on the foundational principles of having a secure attachment style and being a safe person for your child to communicate with.

Section 3: Good communication is safe communication

Overall, says author John Thurman, “when our kids feel safe and secure, their resilience muscles become more robust, and they can more effectively deal with the ups and downs of adolescence.” That principle of safety applies to conversations, too.

Effective communication makes room for feelings

Effective communication with your teen, writes Dr. Walt Larimore, “makes room for them to feel what they are feeling, and to know that their feelings – their heart, the place where they are emotionally – are not only okay with you, but are welcome, and you’re going to care about them.”

  • “The goal is to make yourself a ‘safe place’ to engage in discussing ideas, doubts or questions – about any topic, including drugs, sex, tattoos, social media, bullying, body changes, success, money, painful relationships, messy world views, politics, God and faith. You don’t need to have all the answers, but by providing a safe haven for your teen, you’ll be building a strong emotional connection.”

“In order to be understood as a parent,” says child psychology professor Joshua Straub, “we must first understand.”

  • “At the core of emotional safety is seeking the underlying motivation of what’s really going on in our kids’ hearts and minds. And that goes into infancy – stopping, and taking a step back to understand. Let me become a student of my infant. Let me become a student of my five-year-old. Let me become a student of my 15-year-old. What’s really going on underneath their behaviour?

    “What’s the first thing you want someone to do when you’re hurting? Put their arm around you and just relate. It doesn’t need to be fixed. Just listen. That approach, whether we have adult children or young children, is the emotionally safest thing to do.” (Edited for clarity.)

What emotional safety looks like: Lead in grace, follow with truth

“From the moment our children are born,” says Straub, “they’re asking, Am I safe? Am I loved? Am I worthy of love? Are others capable of loving me? All of those questions are summed up in that one primary question, 'Am I safe?’ ”

Here’s an example of safety from our broadcast with Dr. Joshua and Christi Straub:

Joshua Straub: I was working with a dad whose 14-year-old daughter wanted to go to a Friday night football game, and her dad said no. She looked at him and said, Dad, I hate you,’ and she stormed to her room and slammed the door.

And in that moment, the posture of emotional safety is not punishing the negative emotion. It’s not looking at his daughter and saying, Don’t you ever speak to me that way. You go to your room. I’m taking your phone for a month, and no, you’re not going to that Friday night football game.’

Emotional safety is also not dismissing or minimizing that negative emotion. It’s not saying, You know, it’s just a Friday night football game. Who cares? Don’t be mad at me!’

Instead, the posture of emotional safety is the ability to lean in, put out my arms, and ask to understand: Honey, what is it about that Friday night football game that matters to you so much?’

In this instance, what the dad found out was that his daughter had been rejected by a group of her friends she normally hung out with. And this Friday night football game was the first time they invited her to be a part of something.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discipline the daughter for disrespecting her dad. But we want to lead in grace and follow in truth – because truth without grace is received as condemnation, and we’re just gonna push our kids further away from us when we act that way. (Edited for clarity.)

Unfortunately, even with your best intentions, your child might feel that you’re not a safe person to talk with if you condemn, judge, “preach,” react in anger or anxiety, or shut them down from telling their side of the story.

So before parents can be a safe listening ear for their child, they need to feel safe themselves.

Section 4: How to be self-safe as a parent

Becoming self-safe includes knowing who you are in Christ, knowing how to manage your own emotions, knowing that your child ultimately belongs to God, and knowing that your identity isn’t tied to how your child behaves.

Your relationship with Jesus is strong

Do you know the one true God who created you and authored every day of your life? He has always known and loved you. And through a personal relationship with his son, Jesus, you can have peace – regardless of the trials and sorrows on this earth.

And when your identity is in Christ, you can become who you already are, writes author Gary Millar:

  • “The Bible says over and over again that we have been brought to new life in Christ, but are still works in progress – still scarred and influenced by sin, although not controlled by it. We have already been changed – our true selves are now bound up in Christ (Colossians 3:4) – but we still need to be finished. This is why we need to become who we already are.” [See 1 John 5:18–20.]

Being self-safe includes growing in faith and knowledge of the Bible (an ongoing, lifelong journey for every Christian)!

You are confident of your identity

Having self-confidence and being grounded in your identity is crucial. Your self-worth doesn’t come from your child, how they’re acting now, or who they become as an adult.

That’s difficult, though, isn’t it? Parents can be tempted to idolize their children – and then feel shame if a child makes unwise life decisions. We need to let go of false guilt when reflecting on the question, Am I responsible for my child’s bad behaviour? Dr. Joannie DeBrito points out:

  • “As parents, we often assume that everything our kids do is somehow related to us. This way of thinking, though, discounts a child’s individuality, the negative influence of peers and our larger culture.”

So, remember who you are in Christ. Don’t let your child’s actions define your personal worth.

You have a secure attachment style

Do you have an early memory of learning that the world is broken? Whether or not you believe in God and salvation through his Son, Jesus, the truth is that humanity is not harmonious. Even the most idyllic childhoods aren’t perfect; even the happiest families have hard days.

You’ll want to be sure you’ve dealt with (or are dealing with) any wounds in your past as you build strong communication skills with your teen. And having a secure attachment style is one of the biggest keys.

The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development has spent decades researching attachment issues. They explain in a video on building attachment:

  • “In secure individuals, we see [a] rich set of connections. When we talk about attachment, we’re talking about the dance between a parent and a child. How well [they’re] able to dance together determines how well [the child is] able to dance with other people later in life. We also know that [a parent’s] ability to dance with [their] child is determined by [their] past, to a large extent.”

Authors and counsellors Milan and Kay Yerkovich also write about the topic of secure attachment in adult relationships:

  • “Secure Connectors are comfortable with reciprocity and balanced giving and receiving in relationships. They can describe strengths and weakness in themselves and others without idealizing or devaluating. . . . Secure Connectors clearly and easily communicate their feelings and needs.

    “Resolving conflict was modelled for them growing up, so they know they’re not perfect and can apologize when wrong. Setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ is also no problem for a Secure Connector. They are comfortable with new situations, can take risks, and delay gratification. When upset, Secure Connectors can easily seek help and comfort.”

These concepts apply to children, too, of course. Every child, whether biological or adopted, needs loving support and modelling to develop secure attachments. That guidance must come primarily from emotionally healthy parents.

With that in mind, take time to evaluate and work on your own attachment issues. (For more information, read the Yerkoviches’ book How We Love, and talk to a professional counsellor about taking an Adult Attachment Inventory.)

You know how to manage your own emotions

Be present with your child – understand your child’s love style and become a safe person for them. Kay Yerkovich offers the reminder that, “the secure connector [has] learned to take their pain and their difficult emotions into a relationship.”

  • “There’s a wide range of emotions. Every emotion is okay and they’re taught to manage those emotions appropriately as they grow up. So, when you become a secure connector, you’re gonna be able to really emotionally engage with your kids. Their feelings aren’t gonna overwhelm you. You’re going to be able to help them learn what to do with those difficult emotions that we all face.” 

If you’ve struggled to understand and process your own feelings – including anxiety, fear, anger, sadness – prioritize your emotional intelligence development. It starts, say married counsellors David and Jan Stoop, “with the understanding that our emotions are never bad or wrong.”

  • “For example, if we become angry about something, that emotion is intended to serve a purpose – perhaps to protect us or to register a protest about something. The same is true of other emotions – they each have a positive purpose. The problem comes when we hold on to an emotion beyond its intended purpose. We may escalate the emotion, become controlled by that emotion, or sit in silence fighting off the feelings attached to that emotion. None of those options help to manage what we are feeling.

    “But as we learn more about emotions and practise a few techniques, we can improve our ability to control our emotions. The skills we develop can make us instantly aware of what we are feeling as we begin to feel it. This emotional identification can help us learn how to break the cycles that are so entrenched in the way we interact with [others].”

As moms and dads, we need to pay attention to our emotions because parenting can intensify our fears and concerns. Creating a safe family where your children can thrive means realizing, in part, say Joshua and Christi Straub, that “it’s our fears that are putting pressure on our kids, or it’s our fears that are driving this sense of outward success versus inward character.”

You know your child belongs to God

We need to have a settled, deep confidence that our children truly do belong to God. Yes, they’re entrusted to our care, but we must “teach our kids who God is and how much he truly loves them,” writes Carol Cuppy.

  • “Leading our children to Christ and teaching their identity in Christ will help them to understand their royal status in the kingdom of God and will help them to deter the lies that the world throws their way. We need to raise children who are aware of God’s love for them and who want to serve him. As parents, we need to challenge them to grow and start on the journey to spiritual maturity daily.”

Joshua Straub talks about how he and his wife, Christi, intentionally communicate about outcomes they hope to see in their kids:

“What are the fears that we have about how they’re gonna turn out based upon the way I’m parenting or the way I see her parenting? Let’s talk about why we’re reacting the way that we are and let’s be on a team. Let’s unite on this and learn to support one another.

“The Bible says that ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ I know I’m not God, and I know that he’s God, so he’s perfect and so his love is gonna be perfect. But my love is never gonna be perfect. I’m not God. These are his kids and they’re a gift to us to raise.

“And the more that I focus on them being his kids, the better I am at stewarding them well. But that begins by me grounding myself each morning before they’re ever even out of bed.

“If we don’t begin our day in truth and in the Word of God, the world will lie to us the rest of the day. If I don’t start with grounding myself in truth, then the perfectionism, comparison, and trying to live unfulfilled dreams through my kids – all that stuff can rear its ugly head again if we’re not grounding ourselves in the truth.” (Edited for clarity.)

A key part of that truth is remembering that your child is made in the image of God and has a God-given free will.

You know your child has a free will

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, God laid out one rule in the garden of Eden, one clear boundary: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. On the day that Adam and Eve chose to eat from that tree anyway, God watched them. Did he stop them? No. Didn’t he care what was about to happen to them? Of course!

Man is created in God’s image, which means we all have free will. God has to let us choose our actions, even if we make poor choices and face consequences. In the same way, even though watching our children make painful choices – whether their actions hurt them or us – we must acknowledge their right to choose.

With that in mind, do your best to work with your child’s free will; don’t crush it. Remember: Every parent will face challenges at some point in the journey. Taking the long view will help you keep things in perspective.

Next up: Part Two Tips for communicating with teens: Modelling respect, humility and forgiveness

© 2023 Focus on the Family. Used with permission.

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