8 Tips For Getting Through Awkward Talks With Your Teen

8 Tips For Getting Through Awkward Talks With Your Teen

As our kids get older, it’s time to have conversations that make us uncomfortable, from ‘the talk’ to drinking and personal hygiene. Here’s how to approach those topics—and get your teens to open up.

If it feels like your heart-to-hearts with your teen have ground to a halt, take solace in the fact that this is very much par for the course at this age and stage.

Blame it on the teenage brain that’s going through incredibly important changes that ultimately help prepare kids to function in the adult world, says Teodora Pavkovic, a psychologist and parenting coach in New York City. “Not only does this have a psychological impact, but a physical one, too, which can be really scary for kids,” she says.

Get ready for these developmental changes to take several years to shake out.

“The brain won’t stop going through this rollercoaster of a ride until kids are about twenty-five and brain change stabilizes,” Pavkovic says.

To help us navigate through this awkward time, we asked top experts to sketch out what kids are going through at this age and then offer some key tips for getting your child to actually open up and talk about even the most uncomfortable of topics.

 

Keep in Mind, It’s a Phase

The teenage years are the time when kids are developing their own unique identity, says Stephanie Nilva, executive director of Day One New York, an organization in New York City that counsels survivors of intimate partner violence. “At the same time, their personalities haven’t been fully formed. Remember: It’s their role and responsibility to be testing boundaries, to be exploring, to be figuring out what their identity is.” Given this, you want to try to be as open as possible to talking to your teen about even the most awkward of topics.

 

Start Young

If your kids haven’t hit the teen stage quite yet, here’s some good news: Now’s the time to build trust with them. “Make sure the children in your household feel comfortable talking to you,” Nilva says. Then, when they’re older, make sure when you’re thinking about discipline or accountability, what comes first is your overall concern with their health and safety. “In other words, urge them to talk to you even if you’re upset that your teen violated an understanding you had whether it’s about violating a curfew or anything else—that trust is what’s most important.”

 

It’s Okay if Your Teen Prefers to Talk to Peers

Another change that comes with parenting teens—and it’s one that can be quite shocking after all the years of closeness—is that your kids may prefer to talk to their peers instead of you, suggests Amy Alamar, a parenting expert in Avon, CT, and author of The Parenting Project: Build Extraordinary Relationships with Your Child Through Daily Conversation. “It can be awkward to talk to your teen if the conversation feels forced or inauthentic,” she says. “It’s natural for teens to prefer to talk to their peers and keep some things private. That’s okay and healthy for your teen but don’t give up. You always want to keep working on better ways to communicate one-on-one with your teen.”

 

Be Direct About Hygiene

The best way to talk about just about anything with your teen is to be open and direct, Alamar says, and this comes into play, especially, when it comes to an awkward topic such as personal hygiene. “Don’t beat around the bush,” Alamar says. “Of course, with hygiene and other touchy topics you’ll make the most impact if you broach it in a positive or lighthearted way and avoid sarcasm. You can say things like, ‘This is normal,’ ‘Everyone has body odor,’ or ‘Have you thought about using deodorant?’ Help your teen to see that this is a state of humanity and not a reflection on who they are as a person. Another thing you can do at a time like this is to talk about your own experience and share when things have been awkward and how you dealt with them.”

 

Speak Up About Vaping and Drugs

When it comes to the topic of alcohol, smoking cigarettes (or pot), vaping, or drug use of any kind, you have two goals: Be clear about why you’re concerned and don’t shelter your child from the subject. “It’s better your child learns about risky behavior from you as it offers you the ability to share your values and expectations,” Alamar says. “It also shows your child that you are a trusted adult they can come to and they shouldn’t be afraid to. It’s very possible that your teen has experimented with vaping, drugs, or alcohol or at least been exposed to it. Rather than judge them and come down hard with punishment, open up the conversation.”

Weekend plans? Get local family events delivered to your inbox.

While this doesn’t mean you should avoid consequences, Alamar suggests the conversation should be more about the experience than punishment. “Your goal is to help your child to understand the real dangers and your concerns,” she says. “Listen to find out why your child chose to do this or is thinking about it. Ask questions like ‘Why do you like it?’ and help your child to find alternative behaviors and/or help him or her to feel comfortable coming to you.”

 

‘The Talk’ Looks Different from When We Were Teens

When it comes to talking to your kids about sex, the easiest to-do tip is to use the environment around you for these conversations, like a poster you come across, a song you hear, a character from a film, etc., Pavkovic suggests. “Ask your teen very open-ended questions—imagine that you are their university professor and they are your grad student and you want their thoughts on a subject,” she says. “The two most important things here are that one: they feel you are emotionally calm and stable while you speak to them, and two: they feel your respect for their subjective experience.”

In other words, time your talk. “Don’t start these conversations…right after coming back from work exhausted or right after finding inappropriate texts on your child’s phone,” she adds. “You need to be the stabilizing factor for them—remember there’s a storm going on inside of them.”

 

If You Don’t Like Your Child’s Friends, Be Supportive Anyway

Remember: The core struggle for teens is, again, their immeasurable need to belong to their peer group, Alamar says. “This means you should try to support friendships as best you can so your child can learn to have intimate relationships and build trust outside of just the immediate family,” she says. “If you want to raise an independent adult who can sustain meaningful relationships, then you have to offer opportunities for your child to explore relationships—even ones you are suspect of.”

If you judge your teen’s friends, she may take personal offense so tread lightly. “If you’re having trouble accepting your teen’s friends, consider inviting them to your home or see if you can get to know their families,” Alamar suggests. “In the end, your child is going to choose their friends, and the more you judge, the less likely they are to come to you with questions, concerns, or things to celebrate. They should have the opportunity to experience great friendships they’ve cultivated on their own and also experience disappointments and conflicts.”

 

Remember: You Won’t Have All the Answers

When you’re parenting during this phase, give yourself permission to be vulnerable, Pavkovic says. “Be kind to yourself by going into this phase knowing that you don’t know all the answers,” she says. “The important thing is to get the conversation going and to be able to say, ‘You know what, this is a tough one and I may not know what to tell you, but let’s talk it out anyway.’”

It’s also key to keep your child’s strengths in mind. “This is your most powerful tool,” she says. “As you try to help them with each challenge they face, if you know their strengths you can coach them through using these strengths to resolve these issues.”

No pressure, but the steps you take now will forever make a difference in your teen’s life. “What you are also doing then is not only helping your child make healthier decisions, but you are hitting the parental bingo by teaching them how to help themselves once they are living out there in the world without you,” Pavkovic says.