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Melinda Hutchings

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How To Talk To Your Teenager

Posted: 10/04/10 06:01 PM ET

In Australia, adolescent depression is one of the most frequently reported mental health problems. Bullying is the fourth most common reason young people seek help from childrens' help services. A quarter of school children experience cyberbullying. And these are just a handful of statistics that represent the issues affecting our teens.

No wonder being a teenager in today's world can feel overwhelming.

It can be tough to make friends and find your place on the popularity scale; plan a future and wonder if it's the right path; resist drugs, alcohol and harmful behaviors. There is also anxiety about fitting in and being accepted. In the background, the family environment plays a pivotal role in the way our children are brought up and the choices they make for themselves and their future.

And if being a teen is tough, being a parent in today's society is one of the hardest jobs around. Not only do parents need to manage their child on an emotional level, they also need to maintain vigilance when it comes to the availability of drugs and alcohol and educate their children about the issues they are prone to face as they begin the tumultuous journey through adolescence.

"Communicating with teenagers has long been a topic that parents have grappled with and keeping the lines of communication open remains both difficult and essential," says Wendy Protheroe, General Manager Counseling Services, Kids Helpline.

So, what can we as parents do to help our children?

Dianne Fitzjames, a Clinical Psychologist and Team Leader of the Adolescent Service at Prince of Wales Hospital, says, "When relationships become difficult between parents and teenagers the first thing a parent needs to address is the tone of voice they use when talking to their child. Often because of an ongoing strained relationship, annoyance, anger or even anxiety when trying to speak to their teenager, a parent's tone of voice changes without them being aware. Adolescents usually think the parent is speaking angrily or meanly to them, when this is not the parent's intention."

Clinical Psychologist Chris Basten agrees: "Set a constructive tone, one that is non-judging and interested, and avoid trying to sound like an adolescent. They want you to use the language of your age, not theirs."

The majority of teens I interviewed for my fourth book It Will Get Better expressed the importance of parental love and several studies indicate that quality relationships with parents determine a child's current and future well-being.

Abby, a troubled teenager who battled depression for three years, sums it up beautifully: "Parents have so much power over their children and can take away their self esteem with one sentence."

So, take care in what you say. Even if you are speaking from a place of frustration your child will take criticism to heart.

Dr. Basten suggests connecting the problem area with major life-goals. "If you say 'I know you want to have more time to spend with your friends, but I am also aware that you want to finish this course so that you can get a job -- maybe we should talk about the best compromise and plan of action, given how important your friends are to you and how much you also want to be able to earn money in the future', this mixes up positives and negatives. Choose to correct or offer advice on the things that matter the most.

"Work to understand your teenager's point of view, and don't step away from the tough stuff," says Protheroe. "Make plans in advance for how, when and where difficult discussions occur."

Dr. Basten advises that it's important to work out how you are going to manage your own discomfort with the more difficult topics such as sex and drugs. "At least try to look and sound like it is something you are comfortable with," he says.

Stephanie, who at 15 years old attempted suicide, says, "I think it is really important that people who know someone facing a struggle, continue to stand by them support them, love them and help remind them of the good times and things to look forward to. My turning point came when mom reached out to me. It felt so good to be listened to, to know that my feelings did matter, and that I wasn't alone."

"Parents are more likely to develop effective communication with their teenagers when they provide them with acceptance and support and allow for their independence," says Protheroe. "Set up fun experiences." Dr Basten agrees "find the time to be with them, so they can open up when they want."

Top 5 Tips

  1. Love unconditionally.
  2. Listen without judgement.
  3. Your child will take criticism to heart so focus on the behavior e.g. instead of saying "You're an idiot" you could say "What made you do that?"
  4. Ask your child how they are feeling and let them talk without interrupting. If you create a space for your child to express themselves this will promote an open communication channel and you will gain precious insight into where they are at.
  5. Have a 'No Consequences' rule when it comes to dialing 911. Tell your child that if they are ever in a situation where they need to call an ambulance you will not ask any questions. Too many young people die of alcohol or drug-related causes because their friends are too scared to call 911 for help.

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