Conversations are important to have throughout a child’s life. They are the foundation of relationships, able to grow feelings of trust, safety, mutual understanding, and love. The nature of the conversations we have with our children changes over time. They grow from simple questions and commands to complex explorations of feelings, perspectives, and situations. When our children enter adolescence, conversations that used to flow often become rocky and unpredictable as our children grow into tweens and teens. They are going through all sorts of brain, body, and emotional changes. Therefore, it’s helpful to learn some key tools to help us navigate this new conversation territory.

Teen girl and dad

Why conversations become more challenging during adolescence

Middle school and high school are particularly challenging times to keep conversations going well for parents because our kids are doing the work of developing their own identities and individuating from us. As children enter puberty, their brains are changing with the amygdala (the primal region) and becoming more active in reading and responding to facial expressions. Their brains are on high alert for signs of judgment and danger, trustworthiness and competence, acceptance and attraction. This makes it important for parents to learn to keep their faces neutral when discussing anything from a math test to vaping to a bad mood. 

Some children start entering puberty in 3rd or 4th grade, which can show up in changing moods, attitude, interests, and conversation along with body changes. Their bodies and brains grow and restructure dramatically over the next 10-15 years, which means that we, as parents, need to grow and change along with them. We, too, need to develop new strengths, strategies and skills for staying in good relation with our children. We are supporting their development into autonomous adults we enjoy being with, so it’s worth investing in becoming a skilled conversationalist.

The BRIEF Model of Conversation

I recently wrote about Michelle Icard’s book 14 Talks by Age Fourteen: Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before They Start High School in which she outlines a very helpful model for conversation. See my last blog to learn how to use this BRIEF model, which stands for Begin peacefully, Relate to your child, Interview to collect data, Echo what you hear, Feedback is offered. In addition to this model, Icard offers some wonderful tools to help you manage those conversations with greater ease. I share my take on these tools below.

Improve Conversations with your Tweens and Teens: mother and son talking

9 Ways to Improve All Conversations with your Tween or Teen

Icard shares these 9 key ideas to add to your Parenting Bag of Tricks. My parent coaching clients and I have used variations of all of these strategies over the years and found them to be effective. I hope you’ll find these ideas useful to you, too! 

1. Become an assistant manager. Avoid micromanaging. Help empower your child to manage their life more and more as they gain skill and competence. Trust that they will learn from their mistakes.

2. Put on a “Botox Brow.” Keep your face emotionless and neutral so that your child will feel safer to open up to you. As our pediatrician told me when my kids were young, “Be like Mr. Rodgers: nice and neutral.”

3. Master the art of playing dumb. Get curious and ask questions to help your child unpack their thinking. This works much better than trying to prove they’re wrong and you’re right. The more you listen, the more you’ll learn about how your child is thinking and what they understand.

4. Appear disinterested. This is a good strategy to test out if you have a child who seems to always want your attention when you are on the phone. Try saying, “I want to hear about your… but I’ve got to send a quick email /get dinner started/ run upstairs to get something.” This lights up their desire for your attention, which you can then give once they start talking. 

5. Avoid the ambush. No one likes to feel pressured to talk, especially right when they get home. You can let your child know you’d like to hear about their day or talk about some topic. Then, ask when would be best for that conversation. 

6. Take your time. If emotions start heating up, you can pause and take a breath before responding. If your child says something rude, you can say, “Hmm, I need to think about how to respond to that.”

Ways to Improve Conversations with your Tweens and Teens: father and son working

7. Multitask. This is one of my favorite ways to get my kids talking. When you are driving in the car, making dinner, walking, folding laundry, or other mundane tasks, you can ask braver questions. Your child is more likely to talk with you since they don’t have to look at you. You can always stop what you are doing to really listen when that feels right. I often begin with something like, “So how much are kids in your class talking about/watching/trying out…” They might get defensive, but keep going with an open curiosity. They might just tell you more than if you were sitting there only talking.

8. Don’t talk at all. Some kids do better with writing than talking, especially when they are mad. If your child has a phone, you can text with each other [although remember that they can screenshot what you write so keep yourself on your best behavior]. I’ve also used notes, Post-Its, and cards when I wanted to communicate through some tough moments. These also work to share a reminder in a neutral way. 

9. Designate a proxy. If you have a trusted friend or relative who can have a conversation with your child or tween, this can be very helpful. Share some of your concerns and ask them to have a conversation in which your child might open up more than with you. You can also have a friend or neighbor text your child their number. They can let your child know they are available to talk if they need someone other than a parent.

Mom and upset daughter talking

Lessons from the Field

My kids are now all older than 14, and I’m grateful for all the conversations we’ve had and continue to have. Over the years, I made plenty of mistakes along the way, and learned from each of them. I wish I’d had Michelle Icard’s book when my kids were in middle school. Fortunately, I learned “on the job” through trial and error, reading, talking, and repairing when mistakes were made. 

You will become a conversation expert by continuing to have conversations informed by your experiences. “Go forth unafraid” as that famous motto says. You will tweak these ideas to suit each child you have. They will give you feedback on how you are doing with how they act and what they say. 

Listen and they will guide you. 

If you need support along the way, schedule a Clarity Call or bring up your challenge on a parent coaching call. We can discover what is making a conversation hard for you, role play, and help you develop the confidence and skill you need to have these essential conversations. Many of my clients find these experiences to be highly useful for preparing for conversations. 

Most of my blogs offer conversation tips. You can skim through the titles to see what topics interest you. 

Links to learn more about Michelle Icard’s work:

Enjoy learning about some highlights of 14 Talks by Age Fourteen: Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before High School in this 58-minute video interview with Michelle Icard about her book. 
Purchase Michelle Icard: 14 Talks by Age Fourteen: Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids

Check out these wonderful books for more ideas on communication and conversation:

What Do You Say?: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home by William Stixrud, PhD and Ned Johnson is a wonderful guide to help you learn to engage in respectful and effective dialogue with kids, especially over age 10, when conversations often get thorny or drop off. This book is full of relatable stories, helpful dialogues, and insightful ways to give feedback, discuss boundaries, problem solve and more with more confidence and skill. 

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Ed. by Marshall B. Rosenburg, PhD is an excellent explanation and overview of a way to create connection through compassion and conversation so that everyone’s needs can be met. My clients and I have found this book to be deeply inspiring and helpful to improving relationships between parents and between kids and parents. 

Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication by Oren Jay Sofer is a wonderful book that will improve all of the relationships in your life. Sofer is a truly excellent teacher who also has great meditations online to enjoy.

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Who I serve:
I coach parents from coast to coast in the US and internationally.  Thanks to Zoom, I am currently coaching parents from Boston to Seattle, Connecticut to California, as well as New York, Ohio, and Colorado. I’ve worked with parents in Bermuda, Japan, Portugal, and Canada as well. I’m grateful for these global and domestic connections!