Sep 23, 2016

4 Tips for Talking With Your Teen About Risky Behaviors

There is a central, carefully chosen word in that headline. If you were to change “with” to “at,” it would change the outcome completely. Talking with your teen is a two-way conversation that involves listening as opposed to lecturing or talking at your teen. Think about it, the more you try to tell teens what to do or how to do it, the less likely they will follow your advice when you are out of sight. It’s how teens are wired! That doesn’t mean you should refrain from teaching or counseling them, but try to approach the conversation differently and in a way that your son or daughter will be more likely to hear you and talk with you. Here are four ways to talk with your teen about risky behaviors with less eye rolls and one-word answers:

1.      Ask permission. Risky behaviors account for the majority of teen injury and premature death. In the face of these challenges, parents and others who influence teens need concrete, actionable strategies to support teens in smart decision-making. They key to having a genuine conversation with your teen when it comes to subjects like sex, drugs or alcohol is asking permission. A normal part of teen development is their struggle for control. Asking permission gives them a sense of control over the discussion and a feeling of respect. When permission is asked and given, teens are more open to hearing what you are telling them. You could start with something like this: “I would like to talk with you about what happened at school. When is a good time today?”

2.      Use empathetic statements. Reflecting with empathy creates a safe and supportive environment between you and your teen that you can use to build on. “You had a hard day at school today” makes for a more productive start to a conversation than, “Stop complaining. When I was your age…” When using empathy, the choice of words is critical. Anything too extreme, or too overstated, or a reflection in the form of a question, may elicit further resistance.

3.      Ask open-ended questions. As easy it is to default to lecturing, it doesn’t lead to a productive and honest two-way discussion. Open-ended questions are the backbone of learning more from your teen. They are questions that are not easily answered with a yes or no response. They set the tone for communication and allow teens to think through their risky behaviors and possible alternatives to those behaviors. Open-ended questions create forward momentum to help teens explore their reasons and options for change. If you’d like to have a conversation with your teen about drinking alcohol, you could say, “How will you handle being offered alcohol at a party” instead of “Are you planning on drinking at the party?”

4.      Find their motivations. An important part of helping your son or daughter make safer and healthier decisions is to find out their reasons and motivations for safer behaviors. Open-ended questions play a critical role in this. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t you come home right after school like you said you were going to?” try changing the “why” to a “what.” Ask: “What made you late coming home?” Ask your teen what they would need to do in order to be home from school on time, and share your feelings about staying at a friend’s house unsupervised and how that could lead them into risky situations.

These strategies and others are outlined in more detail in my book Teen Speak, just released on Sept. 6. In Teen Speak I combine my professional expertise in adolescent behaviors with a (metro Detroit!) mother’s intuition. As a parent, you are placed in an influential role to help keep your teen safe and healthy. But that’s no easy task. Teen Speak provides a detailed road map on how to get a conversation started about all types of risky behaviors, using real-world examples of teen-parent interactions and sample responses to common scenarios to support positive change and safer decision-making.

For more information about Teen Speak and to get your copy today, visit