3 Things to Tell Your Teen All the Time (and 4 to Avoid), According to a Therapist
Being a teenager is weird and confusing. And parenting a teen is, well, also weird and confusing. How are you supposed to raise independent, caring and responsible humans when your kid barely looks up from his screen to acknowledge you, let alone tell you what he’s thinking? That’s why we tapped family psychologists and counselors for their expert insight. Here, the phrases that will help adolescents (and their parents) navigate those transformative teenage years.
Don’t Say: “Stop being so moody.”
Look, this may be a completely accurate statement. But pointing out how irritable your child is doesn’t accomplish anything, says Dr. Sherrie Campbell, licensed counselor, psychologist, and marriage and family therapist. “Teens are moody—they are trying to develop two different parts of their identity,” Campbell tells us. “They’re trying to figure out who they are as a person and are also developing their sexual identity. Instead of judging them, we need to have compassion for how much is changing in them,” she advises. So, what should you say instead? Try, “It’s OK to be moody, but I still expect you to be respectful of me.”
Do Say: “I need your help.”
You want your teens to be the best version of themselves, but it's much easier said than done. Here’s an interesting idea from psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston. While doing something together (like driving—don’t try unsolicited face to face, heart to heart conversations with your teenager), say: “I’d like your help. Moving forward, how can I be a better parent if my main responsibility is to do everything I can to enable you to have a successful and happy life after you hit age 18?” Then, wait for their answer and say, “That’s really interesting, how did you come up with that?” You might be surprised at the emotionally revealing insights that come up.
Don’t Say: “You never talk to me.”
When she was six, she couldn’t wait to come home from school and tell you all about what had happened that day in lengthy detail. Now, you're lucky if she gives you a one-word answer. And that hurts, we get it. But when you say something like this, it comes across as accusatory and it’s as if you’re not allowing your teen to have her own private life, Dr. Campbell tells us. “Adolescents need to pull away and make their friends their priority. This is not something they do to hurt us.” Instead, let her know that you’re there for her if she ever needs to talk. (And know that in a few years, you’ll be one of the first people she calls with her problems.)
Do say: “I’m so proud of you.”
“No matter how often teens rebel against your guidance or diss your opinions, they still care enormously about what you think—and especially what you think of them,” says Kristin Wilson, vice president of clinical outreach at Newport Academy. So, it’s important to let them know how much you appreciate them and their accomplishments—whether big or small. “Don’t save this phrase for achievements such as a sports win or a good test score—let them know that you’re just as proud of them for the way they handled a tricky conversation with a friend or for finding ways to stay calm during a challenging situation.”
Don’t Say: “How was your day?”
Unless you want a grunt or a dismissive, “fine” in response, that is. “Instead, ask your adolescent about something they can comment on that won’t seem too personal,” advises child and adolescent family therapist Darby Fox. Let’s say your teen loves sports or music—ask if they saw the latest news about their favorite player or musician. “If you’ve heard about some social activities at school or a party, ask your kids what their thoughts are about it or how common it is. This sends the message that you respect them and believe they have something to say.” Keep in mind that teens are very wary of questions that might expose their inner feelings, so try to ask about broader categories or questions that don’t seem too intrusive.
Do Say: “Hey, I’ve got seven words to ask you about.”
The situation: You know your teen is upset about something but you don’t know what. And asking him what’s wrong is out of the question (cue the slamming doors). Instead, try this novel approach from Dr. Goulston. Tell your kid that you have seven words you want to ask them about. In all likelihood he’ll answer with a, “Huh!” or “What?” Now, in as calm and inviting tone as you can, say: “Hurt, afraid, angry, ashamed, alone, lonely, tired... pick one.” Then when your kid responds with one, you can follow-up with a, “tell me about it.” Think of it as an easier way into a tricky subject, one that will hopefully give you plenty of opportunities to gently probe further (like asking, “When that happened, what did you think?” or “If that happened again, what would be a better thing to do?”).
Don’t Say: “Are you going out like that?”
Come on, you remember this one from your teenage years, right? So lame. And Dr. Campbell says that unless what your child is wearing is totally inappropriate, just let them wear what they’re going to wear. “Teens are trying on all kinds of new identities, which sometimes means literally new outfits. Unless they ask for your opinion, don’t give it,” she advises. (Besides, remember some of the stuff you wore back in the day?)