Focus on the Family

Tips for Communicating With Teens: How to Connect When Emotions Run High

Dad and teen son standing at fence. Son is talking, dad is listening and smiling.
How can we build strong communication with our teen?

We know what we need to talk about with our son, such as life skills, the truth about porn, substance abuse, and God’s design for sex. But we don’t know how to talk to him about these tough topics or anything else, to be honest. Any conversations we do have end with us nagging him — and him giving us one-word answers and slamming the door to his room. We know that’s not what healthy communication looks like, and we need better tools and techniques to help us connect.


The fact that you want to have a healthy bond with your teen is a great sign of your love and commitment as his parents. That’s the most important step in building strong communication as you coach your kids through their teen years.

Also, being aware of what you need to teach your teen as he grows and matures is a huge plus. The world and culture are increasingly complex, and parents need to proactively stay on top of issues important to their teens’ health — spiritually, mentally, and physically.

Whether parents want to stay current on these topics or aren’t sure where to start, Focus on the Family has resources to help guide conversations to have with teens.

But let’s get back to the heart of your question: How can you build strong communication with your teen?

In this Q&A, we’ll share insights from our Counseling team and the parenting experts we’ve had as authors and broadcast guests. We only have space here to take a broad look at twelve important areas, so we urge you to learn more through the links and resource recommendations we’ve included.



The Teen Struggle for Independence

Before we dive into tips for communicating with your teen, we want to camp for a minute on one piece of the puzzle behind a lot of common parent-teen struggles: Teens have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. Therapists even have a term for this: developmental individuating. 

Developmental individuating

Developmental individuating means that your child is becoming their own person. They’re gaining independence and getting ready to launch out on their own. And that process of your teen separating from you is normal, natural, and necessary.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean navigating constant change during the teenage years is easy. In fact, says Dr. Kara Powell, as your teen moves away from you — kicks against you (in the figurative sense) — you might “feel a little dented, a little bruised, a little cracked.”

But you can be a wall, says Powell. Be a wall that won’t move so that when your teen is ready to come back, they know you’ll be there for them. Learn to work through the changes by understanding what’s yours to control and what isn’t. And one of the things you can control — as you already realize — is your communication style and strategy.

Note: This Q&A is directed to parents and teens working through normal struggles of healthy teenage autonomy. If your teen is in crisis or is blatantly rebellious (whether from substance abuse, mental health issues, violent behavior, or other concerns), reach out for professional help.


An Overview of Two-Way Communication

A child’s brain develops best through regular, back-and-forth exchanges of ideas” with their parents. And while it’s best to establish strong communication when your child is young, it’s never too late to start.

Back-and-forth, two-way communication is interactive dialogue. It means taking turns talking and listening. You listen to each other, you gather information, and you work together toward a common goal or solution. We’ll dig into all of this at length, but right now, let’s talk about the two basic parts of communication.

The roles of encoding and decoding

In short, communication happens when a message is sent (encoded) by one person and received (decoded) by another.


Encoding (sending) is about the actual words of a sender as well as their vocal tone, voice inflection, and nonverbal cues: eye contact, hand gestures, and facial expressions.


Decoding (receiving) is about how the receiver interprets and understands the words said as well as how they’re said. (Note that understanding and accepting a message isn’t the same thing as agreeing with it.)

How communication gets derailed

There typically are four ways that communication (the message) can get derailed:

The message is never sent.

This can happen if the sender assumes the receiver already knows the information.

The message is sent but not encoded in an understandable way, so it’s not received.

This can happen if parents use words that are beyond a child’s current understanding, or if the message itself is presented in a confusing way.

The message is received but not understood or accepted.

This can happen when your teen understands what you’re saying but doesn’t understand the logic or the reasoning behind your words. Additionally, your teen might understand exactly what you mean but doesn’t accept your point of view.

The message is received, understood, and accepted — but no action is taken.

If this happens, it’s no longer about a communication breakdown. Instead, it’s about a motivational or behavioral problem.

A parent’s responsibility to communicate well

As a parent, you’re primarily a sender when it comes to communication. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to be a wise receiver (and we’ll talk more about that later). But overall, you have four main responsibilities in your role:

These responsibilities rest on the foundational principles of having a secure attachment style and being a safe person for your child to communicate with.


Good Communication Is Safe Communication

Overall, says author John Thurman, “when our kids feel safe and secure, their resilience muscles become more robust, and they can more effectively deal with the ups and downs of adolescence.” That principle of safety applies to conversations, too.

Effective communication makes room for feelings

Effective communication with your teen, writes Dr. Walt Larimore, “makes room for them to feel what they are feeling, and to know that their feelings — their heart, the place where they are emotionally — are not only okay with you, but are welcome, and you’re going to care about them.”

The goal is to make yourself a “safe place” to engage in discussing ideas, doubts or questions — about any topic, including drugs, sex, tattoos, social media, bullying, body changes, success, money, painful relationships, messy worldviews, politics, God and faith. You don’t need to have all the answers, but by providing a safe haven for your teen, you’ll be building a strong emotional connection.

“In order to be understood as a parent,” says child psychology professor Joshua Straub, “we must first understand.”

At the core of emotional safety is seeking the underlying motivation of what’s really going on in our kids’ hearts and minds. And that goes into infancy — stopping, and taking a step back to understand. Let me become a student of my infant. Let me become a student of my 5-year-old. Let me become a student of my 15-year-old. What’s really going on underneath their behavior?

What’s the first thing you want someone to do when you’re hurting? Put their arm around you and just relate. It doesn’t need to be fixed. Just listen. That approach, whether we have adult children or young children, is the emotionally safest thing to do. (edited for clarity)

What emotional safety looks like: Lead in grace, follow with truth

“From the moment our children are born,” says Straub, “they’re asking, Am I safe? Am I loved? Am I worthy of love? Are others capable of loving me? All of those questions are summed up in that one primary question,Am I safe?”

Joshua Straub: I was working with a dad whose 14-year-old daughter wanted to go to a Friday night football game, and her dad said no. She looked at him and said, “Dad, I hate you,” and she stormed to her room and slammed the door.

And in that moment, the posture of emotional safety is not punishing the negative emotion. It’s not looking at his daughter and saying, “Don’t you ever speak to me that way. You go to your room. I’m taking your phone for a month, and no, you’re not going to that Friday night football game.”

Emotional safety is also not dismissing or minimizing that negative emotion. It’s not saying, “You know, it’s just a Friday night football game. Who cares? Don’t be mad at me!”

Instead, the posture of emotional safety is the ability to lean in, put out my arms, and ask to understand: “Honey, what is it about that Friday night football game that matters to you so much?”

In this instance, what the dad found out was that his daughter had been rejected by a group of her friends she normally hung out with. And this Friday night football game was the first time they invited her to be a part of something.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discipline the daughter for disrespecting her dad. But we want to lead in grace and follow in truth — because truth without grace is received as condemnation, and we’re just gonna push our kids further away from us when we act that way. (edited for clarity)

Unfortunately, even with your best intentions, your child might feel that you’re not a safe person to talk with if you condemn, judge, “preach,” react in anger or anxiety, or shut them down from telling their side of the story.

So before parents can be a safe listening ear for their child, they need to feel safe themselves.


How to Be Self-Safe As a Parent

Becoming self-safe includes knowing who you are in Christ, knowing how to manage your own emotions, knowing that your child ultimately belongs to God, and knowing that your identity isn’t tied to how your child behaves.

Your relationship with Jesus is strong

Do you know the one true God who created you and authored every day of your life? He has always known and loved you. And through a personal relationship with His son, Jesus, you can have peace — regardless of the trials and sorrows on this earth.

And when your identity is in Christ, you can become who you already are, writes author Gary Millar:

The Bible says over and over again that we have been brought to new life in Christ, but are still works in progress — still scarred and influenced by sin, although not controlled by it. We have already been changed — our true selves are now bound up in Christ (Colossians 3:4) — but we still need to be finished. This is why we need to become who we already are. [See 1 John 5:18–20.]

Being self-safe includes growing in faith and knowledge of the Bible (an ongoing, lifelong journey for every Christian!).

You are confident of your identity

Having self-confidence and being grounded in your identity is crucial. Your self-worth doesn’t come from your child, how they’re acting now, or who they become as an adult.

That’s difficult, though, isn’t it? Parents can be tempted to idolize their children — and then feel shame if a child makes unwise life decisions. We need to let go of false guilt when reflecting on the question, Am I responsible for my child’s bad behavior? Dr. Joannie DeBrito points out:

As parents, we often assume that everything our kids do is somehow related to us. This way of thinking, though, discounts a child’s individuality, the negative influence of peers and our larger culture.

So, remember who you are in Christ. Don’t let your child’s actions define your personal worth.

You have a secure attachment style

Do you have an early memory of learning that the world is broken? Whether or not you believe in God and salvation through His Son, Jesus, the truth is that humanity is not harmonious. Even the most idyllic childhoods aren’t perfect; even the happiest families have hard days.

You’ll want to be sure you’ve dealt with (or are dealing with) any wounds in your past as you build strong communication skills with your teen. And having a secure attachment style is one of the biggest keys.

The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development has spent decades researching attachment issues. They explain in a video on building attachment:

In secure individuals, we see [a] rich set of connections. When we talk about attachment, we’re talking about the dance between a parent and a child. How well [they’re] able to dance together determines how well [the child is] able to dance with other people later in life. We also know that [a parent’s] ability to dance with [their] child is determined by [their] past, to a large extent.

Authors and counselors Milan and Kay Yerkovich also write about the topic of secure attachment in adult relationships:

Secure Connectors … are comfortable with reciprocity; balanced giving and receiving in relationships. They can describe strengths and weakness in themselves and others without idealizing or devaluating. … Secure Connectors are able to clearly and easily communicate their feelings and needs.

Resolving conflict was likely modeled for them growing up, so they know they’re not perfect and can apologize when wrong. Setting boundaries and saying “no” is also no problem for a Secure Connector. They are comfortable with new situations, can take risks, and delay gratification. When upset, Secure Connectors can easily seek help and comfort.

These concepts apply to children, too, of course. Every child, whether biological or adopted, needs loving support and modeling to develop secure attachments. That guidance must come primarily from emotionally healthy parents.

With that in mind, take time to evaluate and work on your own attachment issues. (For more information, read the Yerkoviches’ book How We Love, and talk to a licensed counselor about taking an Adult Attachment Inventory.)

You know how to manage your own emotions

Be present with your child — understand your child’s love style and become a safe person for them. Kay Yerkovich offers the reminder that, “the secure connector [has] learned to take their pain and their difficult emotions into a relationship.”

There’s a wide range of emotions. Every emotion is okay and they’re taught to manage those emotions appropriately. … So, when you become a secure connector, you’re gonna be able to really emotionally engage with your kids. Their feelings aren’t gonna overwhelm you. You’re going to be able to help them learn what to do with those difficult emotions that we all face. 

If you’ve struggled to understand and process your own feelings — including anxiety, fear, anger, sadness — prioritize your emotional intelligence developmentIt starts, say married counselors David and Jan Stoop, “with the understanding that our emotions are never bad or wrong.”

For example, if we become angry about something, that emotion is intended to serve a purpose — perhaps to protect us or to register a protest about something. The same is true of other emotions — they each have a positive purpose. The problem comes when we hold on to an emotion beyond its intended purpose. We may escalate the emotion, become controlled by that emotion, or sit in silence fighting off the feelings attached to that emotion. None of those options help to manage what we are feeling.

But as we learn more about emotions and practice a few techniques, we can improve our ability to control our emotions. The skills we develop can make us instantly aware of what we are feeling as we begin to feel it. This emotional identification can help us learn how to break the cycles that are so entrenched in the way we interact with [others].

As moms and dads, we need to pay attention to our emotions because parenting can intensify our fears and concerns. Creating a safe family where your children can thrive means realizing, in part, say Joshua and Christi Straub, that “it’s our fears that are putting pressure on our kids, or it’s our fears that are driving this sense of outward success versus inward character.”

You know your child belongs to God

We need to have a settled, deep confidence that our children truly do belong to God. Yes, they’re entrusted to our care, but we must “teach our kids who God is and how much He truly loves them,” writes Carol Cuppy.

Leading our children to Christ and teaching their identity in Christ will help them to understand their royal status in the kingdom of God and will help them to deter the lies that the world throws their way. We need to raise children who are aware of God’s love for them and who want to serve Him. As parents, we need to challenge them to grow and start on the journey to spiritual maturity daily.

Joshua Straub talks about how he and his wife, Christi, intentionally communicate about outcomes they hope to see in their kids:

What are the fears that we have about how they’re gonna turn out based upon the way I’m parenting or the way I see her parenting? Let’s talk about why we’re reacting the way that we are and let’s be on a team. Let’s unite on this and learn to support one another.

The Bible says that “Perfect love casts out fear.” I know I’m not God, and I know that He’s God, so He’s perfect and so His love is gonna be perfect. But my love is never gonna be perfect. I’m not God. These are His kids and they’re a gift to us to raise.

And the more that I focus on them being His kids, the better I am at stewarding them well. But that begins by me grounding myself each morning before they’re ever even out of bed.

If we don’t begin our day in truth and in the Word of God, the world will lie to us the rest of the day. If I don’t start with grounding myself in truth, then the perfectionism, comparison, and trying to live unfulfilled dreams through my kids — all that stuff can rear its ugly head again if we’re not grounding ourselves in the truth. (edited for clarity)

A key part of that truth is remembering that your child is made in the image of God and has a God-given free will.

You know your child has a free will

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, God laid out one rule in the garden of Eden, one clear boundary: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. On the day that Adam and Eve chose to eat from that tree anyway, God watched them. Did He stop them? No. Didn’t He care what was about to happen to them? Of course!

Man is created in God’s image, which means we all have free will. God has to let us choose our actions, even if we make poor choices and face consequences. In the same way, even though watching our children make painful choices — whether their actions hurt them or us — we must acknowledge their right to choose.

With that in mind, do your best to work with your child’s free will; don’t crush it. Remember: Every parent will face challenges at some point in the journey. Taking the long view will help you keep things in perspective.


The Importance of Respect in Communiction

Two types of respect

There are two types of respect: positional and earned.

Positional respect

Positional respect, as you might expect, comes from status or rank — such as being a parent, teacher, police officer, judge, or military superior. Even more importantly, however, positional respect comes from simply being human. “Value isn’t determined by our ethnicity, race or gender; nor by our age, ability or location,” writes Carrie Gordon Earll. Instead,

It’s our divine membership in the human family that sets each of us apart as sacred. Men, women, and children (including preborn children in the womb) should be respected, regardless of their mental capacity, physical ability, or social position. Some people may not exhibit attributes of God or behave in ways that recognize their own value yet their intrinsic worth remains.

Earned respect

Earned respect is just that: respect you earn by the way you live your life, go about your daily work, and interact with others.

Even with positional respect, we should work to earn respect

Parents might assume that because they have positional respect as an authority figure, they don’t need to earn their child’s respect. And (whether they recognize it or not), teens might think that because they have positional respect as a child who’s loved unconditionally, they don’t need to earn their parents’ respect.

Both assumptions are wrong.

“Children, including teenagers, should treat their parents with respect (Ephesians 6:2),” writes pastor John Piper. “But it cuts both ways. ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger‘ (Ephesians 6:4). Of course children can get angry for no good reason. But the point is: Don’t give them a good reason.”

Parents need to know “how to raise children [who] have a humble respect for God-given authority, whether in parents or husbands or teachers or policemen or pastors or civic laws,” says Piper. “But at the same time, also see that God’s pattern of leadership is servant leadership.”

Modeling humility starts with Mom and Dad

Jesus taught this lesson to His disciples time and again:If anyone would be first, he must be the last of all and servant of all.” Author Pat Williams explains:

There’s no such thing as an arrogant servant; a servant is humble by definition. If kids learn to see themselves as servants of God and others, they will more naturally develop an attitude of humility.

[We also have to realize that] children can’t demonstrate humility if they can’t admit to being wrong — the ability to own mistakes is a key component of integrity. One way to encourage kids to admit mistakes is by showing mercy when they confess their sins and errors. Confession makes life easier than a cover-up or a lie. Kids who feel they can safely approach their parents with the truth are less likely to be dishonest and defensive.

We model this behavior by being able to admit our own errors. Some parents feel the need to keep up a front of perfection, as if admitting mistakes would diminish them in their children’s eyes. In reality, when we say to our kids, “I was wrong; please forgive me,” their respect for us increases.

Modeling forgiveness starts with parents, too

Modeling forgiveness can be a tough pill to swallow as parents because we feel we are owed positional respect; we’re “in charge.” But humility comes from “realizing that we are not above our teenagers,” says author Jerusha Clark. “They hurt us, but we hurt them, too.” That’s why it’s so important that we do learn to apologize sincerely because our teens are watching. In fact, our teens mirror us, points out Clark:

We all have mirror neurons in our brains. And scientists are discovering that people learn by watching others almost more effectively than any other kind of learning because what you do and say — even your facial expressions — are mirrored in the brains of the people around you. So that’s why when you see someone smile, it’s hard not to smile.

We don’t control when our mirror neurons fire. They naturally occur as we observe someone performing an act, saying something, or doing a certain behavior. So when we are humble, when we lay aside our pride, when we lay aside our need to be right and we apologize sincerely, that is mirrored in our teenager.

Now, that doesn’t guarantee that they will then apologize back. But it mirrors humility inside of them. When I model asking for forgiveness from my kids, I’m actually engaging a part of their brain they don’t even have control over.

The last thing I may want to do is apologize, especially to someone who I feel was at fault. My pride gets in the way — my own ability to assess the situation. But I go in and apologize once again because I can’t control what they do; I can control what I do. (edited for clarity)

The impact of respect on communication

For young kids and teens, “distraction is a major obstacle” to listening, writes Dr. Danny Huerta. “But inconsistent or unclear boundaries, and a lack of respect, are also contributors.”

Respect for your word can hinge on how well you respect your child’s words. When your kids are speaking to you, do you stop and listen? If you routinely tune them out while you’re on the phone, they might not feel valued, heard, and understood. So create a culture of mutual respect for each other’s communication. Model respect, grace and forgiveness.

Your role as a parent is to show respect by seeing your children through God’s eyes — through that mercy, that steadfast love. And [there’s a higher likelihood that] we will gain respect if we’re giving it.

It comes down to gentleness. Ephesians 4:1-2 says to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

Respect, a lot of times, is about listening to somebody else, being present with them with what the true need is. Because kids’ behaviors are telling us something. Their emotions are telling us something. And many times we’re reacting to those emotions rather than really stopping and being present with what’s needed the most. (Excerpted from When Your Kids Tune You Out and What Your Kids Need Most to Grow Up Well. Edited for clarity)

Parents might think they must immediately reprimand disrespect. But Dr. Karyn Purvis proposed a different response during our broadcast Connecting With Your Child. She suggests stepping back and saying calmly, “No, you’re disrespecting me, but I’m going to give you a chance to say that differently.”

Don’t worry that you’ll be seen as caving in — or capitulating power to your teen. Instead, you’re sharing power. “When you share power,” says Purvis, “you prove it’s yours. You can’t share something you don’t own.” 

Teach kids what respect looks like and sounds like

Mom and author Karen Ehman tells her kids that she expects them “to use the same calm, respectful tone with everyone they encounter, not just with their parents or with those in authority. Everyone — even that combative classmate who never seems to speak respectfully to them.”

Recognize the value of modeling soft responses to children. There are many things I need to teach my children about the basic tasks and responsibilities of life. Making beds. Doing laundry. Remembering to put their shoes away. But when teaching them these things, do I do it with a soft tone, or do I just open my mouth, spewing out impatience?

Remind your kids to keep their words gentle, respectful, and brief. Sticking to just a few comments in a difficult conversation increases the chances that our listeners will be responsive to what we say.


How to Communicate Love to Your Teen

You’ve probably heard the saying that most kids spell love as T.I.M.E. And that’s largely true; healthy parents make time for and with their children. However, those efforts aren’t enough, says Dr. Gary Chapman.

We have to be more than sincere. We have to learn how to communicate love so that your teenager, that specific teenager, feels loved. Because one size does not fit all.

Speaking your teen’s love language can include words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, giving gifts, and physical touch.

Become a student of your teen

Becoming a student of your teen — learning their love language and what makes them tick — is important because at that age, “intimacy and good conversations are usually on their terms,” says Dr. Kara Powell.

It’s not so much when I want to have a good conversation. It’s when they want to have a good conversation, which means I, as a parent, have to be ready to drop everything. [It’s important], when my child brings up something or seems just a little bit open, to really prioritize the conversation then.

Relationships and communication are strengthened when your teen can trust that you’ll be present when they need you. And that’s especially important as your child matures and learns how to process big emotions. A parent’s job is to resonate with their child, guide them, and mentor them, says Dr. Karyn Purvis. And she explains the importance of this connection as you talk with your teen:

Sometimes feelings feel so big that they feel like they’re gonna swallow us up. But you know, we can talk about it together. We can grieve about it together. Take a walk together down to the corner ice cream store and we just talk, or we can just walk together. It’s called “being felt.” I know you’re gettin’ me. You don’t have to say a word. I know you get me.

However, don’t become complacent in a false sense of security. Youth expert Jonathan McKee points out, “If we think for one minute that we are going to know everything about our kids, we’re fooling ourselves.”

We’re not going to be aware of everything. But if we as parents take the time to notice — and especially look for opportunities to connect with them — we can learn so much.

One example is the old carpool — taking our kids back from soccer practice, from school, wherever. As a parent, this is a great time for us to just listen. I mean I’ve got my German shepherd ears up just totally paying attention, because if you just be quiet and don’t say a word and listen, you can learn so much about your kids when they are in the back of the car — like where the best fries are. “Oh, the best are the onion rings at Buffalo Wild Wings.”

Well, if your kid is saying that he loves onion rings at Buffalo Wild Wings and you’re having trouble connecting with your kid, think of what an in that is some night when he’s sitting there doing homework. “Hey, you tired of homework? Let’s go grab some onion rings at Buffalo Wild Wings.” (edited for clarity)

Along with learning how your teen feels loved, it’s also helpful to understand how teens think in general.


How to Unlock Your Teen's Brain

All quotations in this section are excerpted from our broadcast Understanding How Your Teen Thinks. Married authors Jeramy and Jerusha Clark share important insights about teens’ changing brain chemistry.

Neurological pruning in your teen’s brain

“While researching neuroscience for our book Your Teenager Is Not Crazy, we discovered that there’s pruning happening neurologically in an adolescent’s brain. And this pruning is called arborization. There’s a specialization that’s happening in the brain. And as this process takes place, it literally creates chaos. Based on this physical reality, based on what’s happening, we can have greater compassion, greater understanding, and we can parent better based on this information.”

Understand the power of shorter conversations

Because your teen’s brain is still developing, it’s important to have shorter and more frequent conversations.

“Think of it like Jesus dropped parables, little stories. They were more like a pebble in someone’s shoe than a lecture. They just kind of stuck with people. People walked around, and the story was still in their mind.

“And that’s what, as parents of teenagers, we should think of our conversations: as dropping a little stone in a lake, and it ripples out. Once the water is calm again, we drop another stone in, and that ripples out. And then again. It’s this idea that, hopefully, as their brain is able to take in these shorter and more frequent conversations, the information will really gel.” 

Accept that you can’t control your teen

You can only control how you react. And you can be intentional about recognizing the subtext of conversations with your teen.

“When your teenager says, ‘Just leave me alone,’ think, ‘Okay, I gotta put my hard hat on here rather than retaliate.’ Or think about when your teenager says, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Understanding that their ability to evaluate facial expressions is radically different than that of an adult helps you to just take a moment to breathe and think, ‘How can I change my behavior?'”

Don’t assume you know what your kids are thinking

In trying to figure out what are teens are thinking, it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on expectations, experiences, or even our own upbringing.

“When we’re interacting with our teens, we can jump to conclusions, and we’re already prescribing, we’re making statements, we’re correcting, and we’re adjusting their behavior. But if we’re not careful, we’re just seen as somebody our teens want to avoid because we are always prescribing for them what they have to do differently, what they’re doing wrong. Our teens will receive (decode) what we’re saying as that we’re upset with them and don’t like them.”

Realize that the adolescent brain is hyper-rational

Another aspect of adolescent brain development is hyper-rational thinking. In short, when teens assess something potentially dangerous, they tend to underestimate that threat and overestimate the possibility of excitement.

“They may think, ‘This car race could kill me. But it might turn out to be incredibly epic!’ That’s why it’s important for us as parents to ask our teens to think about things and evaluate the consequences. Because as we ask the questions, they’re thinking.”

And asking questions is one of the most powerful tools parents have when it comes to connecting with their teens.


How to Ask Your Teen Questions in the Right Way

When we ask, listen, and respect, we stimulate our teen’s prefrontal cortex. That area of the brain isn’t mature in teenagers, but asking questions forces the prefrontal cortex to engage and develop. That said, whether we ask a silly question or a serious question, we have to ask it in the right way.

The gift of open-ended questions

To deepen connection, avoid closed-ended questions that only allow for a yes or no answer.

Instead, ask open-ended questions that make our teens pause, think, and reflect: what, why, how, describe, tell me about, what do you think about.

With open-ended questions, the person asking the questions releases control of the conversation to the person answering. In other words, open-ended questions help create two-way dialogue where teens are encouraged to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions more freely.

Jeremy and Jerusha Clark point out, “If your teenager’s ranting, they probably expect you to say, ‘Stop that.'”

Instead, say, “Tell me more about it,” or “Why do you think that happened?” or “What is, in your opinion, the best solution?” They are expecting you to give them the solution. But you’re asking them to engage their prefrontal cortex.

Here are some tips for asking open-ended questions effectively.

Start with “What,” “How,” or “Why”

These question starters are great for encouraging teens to provide detailed responses. For example, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy the movie?” you could ask, “What did you find interesting about the movie?”

Show genuine curiosity and interest

“If we’re asking questions about [our teen’s] day because we feel obligated, they’ll know it,” says Dr. Kathy Koch in Your Teens Need You, Not More Screen Time. “If we’re talking with them to get it over with so we can move onto something else, they’ll feel it.”

So, demonstrate a sincere desire to understand your teen’s perspective. Don’t just listen with your ears; focus on your teen’s whole body. Make eye contact. Smile and nod. Mirror or repeat back what your teen says to show you’re paying attention.

“Engaging intentionally with our kids helps them feel safe, seen, and loved,” writes author Linda Goldfarb. “When we gift our child with an attentive ear, he will return with conversations we never thought possible.” (Check out questions to ask kids of all ages in Goldfarb’s article How to Get Your Kids Talking.)

Don’t be afraid of silence

Teens sometimes need time to gather their thoughts before responding. That silence can feel awkward, but resist the urge to fill the quiet spaces. Instead, give your teen the chance to form and share their ideas. You can help the conversation along with occasionally saying something like, “You might be thinking …” or “This might raise the question of …”

Ask follow-up questions

When your teen offers an initial response, follow up with additional questions. For example, if they mention they enjoyed a particular book, you could ask, “What about it did you find most interesting?”

In addition to helping you connect with your teen, this kind of “digging deeper” helps them learn to relate to others. And that’s an important part of strong relational intelligence.

Encourage storytelling and personal experiences

Asking about personal experiences can support engagement and help teens connect with a topic. For instance, instead of asking, “Did the game go well today?” you could say, “I’d love to hear what you thought was the strangest/funniest/hardest moment of today’s game.”

Check your tone

Create a safe, non-judgmental environment where your teen feels comfortable expressing themself. Remember: You’re working to build two-way conversation, not interrogate your teen. Don’t criticize their opinions or ideas, even if they differ from your own (and we’ll talk more about that in the upcoming section on teaching your teen how to think, not what to think).

Instead, use active listening. “Active listening doesn’t judge everything that comes out of your child’s mouth,” says mom Cheri Fuller.

Instead of saying, “I don’t know why you feel so angry,” say, “It sounds like you’re mad and hurt. I understand that.” Let your child know he’s heard before you offer a solution.

Avoid leading questions

Do your best to keep your questions neutral and unbiased. For instance, instead of asking, “Don’t you think that was unfair?” you could ask, “How do you feel about the situation?”

Parents can’t always stay neutral, of course. You still need to set appropriate boundaries, and you must protect your teen if you see an imminent threat to their safety and wellbeing. But to the extent you can, ask questions to help develop your teen’s problem-solving skills. Do your best to stay calm and help them think through a situation.

As an example, Jerusha Clark shares in our broadcast Understanding How Your Teen Thinks about a time when her 14-year-old daughter was invited by a senior to go drinking.

I was so grateful she told me. But of course, I’m freaking out. I said, “Well, why do you think this young man asked you to do that?”

And she said, “Well, I think he thinks that’s what’s fun.”

I said, “You know, you’re probably right. Do you know if this person knows God?” She said, “I don’t think so.” And I tried to stay as calm as possible. Of course, my emotions are right on the surface, but I’m trying to take one step at a time.

Finally, she came to a conclusion and said, “You know what I want to do? I want to start praying for him.” (edited for clarity­)

Respect your teen’s boundaries

Your teen might feel uncomfortable with open-ended questions until they know they can trust your intentions. And even then, they might not want to share about certain parts of their lives.

Respect their boundaries and let them decide how much they want to disclose. You can explain why you’re asking a question, rephrase it, or just save it for another time.


The Right Way to Communicate During Conflict

Disagreements aren’t the same as fights. And it’s possible to maintain a strong relationship even during disagreements. Here are some tips for talking your way through conflict with your teen:

Let your teen speak

Don’t try to control your teen’s side of the confrontation, and don’t interrupt. This goes back to understanding the shared power of parenting. Rather, give your teen the chance to speak their mind. And if either you or your teen tend to talk nonstop, set a timer and take turns.

Give weight to your teen’s feelings and opinions

Of course, teens shouldn’t get a pass for disrespect or rudeness. And we must teach them that emotions don’t carry valid weight when it comes to logic and conflict resolution.

Still, we can sincerely communicate to our teen that we understand their point of view even if we don’t agree with it. And we can explain why we might not think the way they do.

One teen commented, “My mom and I had effective communication because I was treated as an equal. Not in terms of who was in charge (that was clear) but in that I had a voice.”

Be fair

Don’t name-call, don’t belittle, and don’t continually withdraw. Take a break if you need to and come back to the disagreement later.

Be clear about your reasons for requests or rules; explain what you want and why. At the same time, don’t be inflexible just because it might be easier to say, “Because I said so!” Instead, agree with your teen whenever you honestly can. Or emphasize what evidence you’d need before you could potentially agree with them.

For ideas about what that looks like, browse this example of parent-teen negotiating.

Watch your tone and body language

“When parents yell or use sarcasm or point fingers,” says Bob Waliszewski in Talk Your Way Through Conflict, “kids figure it’s OK for them to do the same. They also put on their protective gear and get into ‘fight’ position.”

So do your best to stay calm. When you keep your composure during a tense situation with your teen, you send a nonverbal message that you’re not scared and are still the parent in charge of the situation.

If you start to lose control or get offtrack during an argument — or if it feels like you’re trying to win instead of connect — take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you want to communicate with your teen and explore their perspective.

Try to keep things light

For a fun take on handling conflict, check out Gary Smalley and Greg Smalley’s suggestion about how to use drive-thru talking. It boils down to one person being the “employee” (listener) and one person being the “customer” (speaker).

Drive-thru talking is successful because it helps your teenager feel safe to express his or her needs and feelings. Safety develops when your child trusts that your goal is to listen and understand, not to defend and challenge. That’s why, in the employee role, we do not evaluate, edit, or defend ourselves. Instead, we simply listen and repeat. (It’s better if you repeat using your own words.)

Write a letter instead

Writing gives you time to sort through your thoughts and express yourself carefully,” notes Waliszewski. “It gives your teen time to respond instead of reacting defensively. A notebook passed back and forth can work, too; so does email.” 

Keep the issue in perspective

Yes, it’s important to guide your children in God’s truth. But “most arguments don’t qualify as ‘teachable moments,’” says Waliszewski. Choose your battles wisely. “Stand up for the values that are most important to you and to your teen’s welfare — but consider flexibility on lesser matters.”


How to Pick Your Battles

“When you understand where to focus your time and energy,” writes author Shelby Hall, “you really can create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.” She suggests three categories to consider as you decide how to pick your parenting battles:

Battles worth picking

These can include behavior contrary to Scripture (sexual immorality and breaking the law), disrespect, and legitimate threats of danger.

Battles to avoid

Don’t pick battles rooted in your past insecurities or mistakes. And if an issue wouldn’t negatively affect your teen, let it go.

Jonathan McKee agrees that there are some teen battles worth ignoring. He’s learned not to get “pulled into the drama.”

A parent might say, “Grab your coat and let’s go.”

The teen might respond, “I don’t need a coat. It’s not even cold outside.”

Don’t argue. Teens do whatever they can to win these little battles. They’ll do a Google search in an attempt to prove that the outside temperature is actually not cold at all — compared to Antarctica. In addition, they’ll tell you it would be unfair to animals for you to wear outer garments while they have to fend off the frigid temperature on their own.

Just let it go. Save your energy for the fights that matter. After all, in most situations, natural consequences teach far more than any of our lectures. Let the kid freeze for a day. He’ll remember his coat tomorrow without you having to say a word.

Battles to defer

If multiple topics of disagreement come up during what was supposed to be a one-issue conversation, save off-topic points for another time. And if your teen asks for an immediate decision about something, it’s OK to tell them you and your spouse need time to talk, pray, and agree about the issue first.

SECTION eleven

Teach Your Teen How to Think, Not What to Think

God’s Word reminds us to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Part of helping your teen mature and communicating well with them is teaching them how to identify emotions and how to constructively handle them. “It’s problem-solving. It’s strategizing. It’s critical thinking,” says counselor David Thomas.

And that lays the foundation for an important part of building strong communication: teaching your teen how to think instead of what to think (typically what you want them to think). In short, you need to help them become critical thinkers. Don’t assume your teen will learn these skills anywhere else.

Learn to be curious with your children

The first step in the critical-thinking process, says mom Cathy Edwards, is wonder. “By wondering, we create a habit of observing, which leads to analyzing.”

My children and I made an I Wonder book. We jotted down questions about daily observations. We didn’t answer any of the questions. Instead, we wondered out loud, talking together and brainstorming possible answers. If a certain question led to serious interest and conversation, we might get books on the topic or research it online.

Even if you didn’t form this habit when your kids were younger, it’s never too late to start! Teens are still curious — just probably about issues deeper than how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.

Don’t be afraid of your teen’s questions or statements

Things are not good in our society when it comes to teenage culture,” observes Dr. Gary Chapman, “and parents have a right to be concerned.” We need to be invested in our teens enough to pay close attention to what’s going on in their world.

Even so, teacher Ray Vander Laan points out that Christians sometimes are “hesitant to really get to know the culture well around us.”

I run into people who will say, “I don’t read anything I don’t agree with,” or “I don’t watch anything I don’t agree with.” And I realize there’s a time and place to avoid sin and temptation. But I think we need to know our culture really well. We need to know our culture so well that we know how to speak God’s truth in their language.

The same is true as you build a connection with your teen. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Rather, know your child so well that you can speak God’s truth in their language. Engage them. Not to criticize but to know how to reach them and figure out where they might be misunderstanding or lacking knowledge.

Expressing an interest in something your teenager is into doesn’t mean you agree. You’re not surrendering your values. Rather, it boils down to the tips we’ve talked about earlier in this piece:

Ask your teen what they think is the wise thing to do

“Instead of issuing directions and telling them how to approach a certain situation,” suggests Carol Cuppy, “ask them what they think they should do. Then, based on their answer, you can guide them into making wise decisions.”

Teach your teen how to renew their mind

“Renewing the mind is a day-to-day process of thinking biblically,” says author Marc Fey. “The world is full of counterfeit truth claims, but you can teach your teen to live according to God’s reality.”

Again, it’s not about forcing your values or beliefs on your teen. Instead, it’s about sharing your own faith journey so your teen sees the power of God working through your story. They need to see you renew your mind as you engage with and understand people whose values don’t align with yours — even people within the church.

Parents, say Jeramy and Jerusha Clark, must continue to have these conversations and grow themselves.

And that’s at the heart of challenging ourselves to continue to press in and trust God. We need to pray like never before that God would help us gear up for the conversations that we need to have. (edited for clarity)

Explain confirmation bias to your teen

Confirmation bias (something we all have) is the tendency to look for, pay attention to, and believe information that supports our existing beliefs or ideas. It means we tend to favor things that confirm what we already think — and tend to ignore, deny, dismiss, or distort evidence that goes against our beliefs.

Explain to your teen that they can think of confirmation bias like wearing sunglasses that make everything look a certain color. If they’re wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, for example, everything they see will look bluer to them.

In a similar way, confirmation bias can make us see things in a way that supports what we already believe — even if it’s inaccurate or harmful. Critical thinking minimizes confirmation bias.

Teach the difference between correlation and causation

Two things might be associated with each other, but that doesn’t mean one causes the other. Help your teen learn to look for a third option.

People tend to see issues as black and white, either this or this. That thought process is called binary thinking, and it can work in fields like biology and engineering. But it doesn’t work for all of life. If we look at everything in an either/or way, we can miss the truth — because truth is often found in middle ground, where both this and this have a place.

Our staff counselors emphasize that this is also important for us as moms and dads to embrace. We need to be willing to look for third options, too! A good example? The discussion about college:

One of the most common sources of conflict for parents and teens is what comes after high school. We might be tempted to panic and think that our teen will be ruined if they don’t pursue higher education.

How can you remind yourself that there’s a difference between correlation and causation on this issue and help your teen discover a “third option”?

Don’t try to convince (or worse, force) your teen to attend college. Instead, lay out all the options. Help your teen understand the different available opportunities such as community college, online certifications, vocational school, an internship or apprenticeship, military service, working full-time for a while, or taking a year off (often called a gap year) to volunteer or to live and work in a foreign country.

If your teen chooses not to attend college right after graduation (or ever!), the world won’t end.

Help your teen incorporate different points of view

When your teen comes to you with a hypothesis, statement, or argument for a specific topic, ask them to find and show you the research — facts — that led to your teen’s conclusion.

Don’t condemn or preach against things you don’t agree with. Don’t outright forbid your teen from watching or listening to something you don’t understand or agree with. Don’t shut them down when they wonder about getting a tattoo. Don’t launch into a fiery sermon when they tell you they’re struggling with their faith in Christ.

Instead, listen, listen, and listen some more. Walk them through the process of critical thinking. “This is where you’re going to have greatest impact,” says Dr. Gary Chapman.

For example, they may get into another religion and study it deeply and come home talking about it. Rather than just saying, “Well, that’s wrong and the Bible doesn’t teach that,” listen to them. Walk with them through that. Let them tell you what they’re learning. And then you start reading about that religion so you can interact intelligently with them.

Encourage creative problem-solving and set the example

Let your teen hear your thought process as you think critically. Let them see you work through how to solve a problem. Trouble-shoot challenges together. And give your teen achievable challenges. For example, ask them to plan part of the family vacation, including making any necessary reservations.

Let your teen fail

Teens can’t become responsible adults without failing and learning how to handle that failure. Don’t rush in to fix things for them. Come alongside them to help them find a way to solve the problem. As long as your teen won’t suffer physical harm or permanent emotional damage, let them experience the consequences of bad choices.

Dig into principles of critical thinking

The topic of critical thinking is too broad to cover in this limited space. So we urge you to spend time listening to our program guests who specialize in finding common ground with people and pointing them to the truths of Christ. These speakers know what it takes to present a compelling, clear, logical argument.

Also, you might want to consider the following resources about general principles of critical thinking and debate. (Note: Links to secular organizations don’t mean that their content necessarily aligns with Focus on the Family’s perspective in all areas. We offer them for informational purposes only.)

SECTION twelve

Stick With Your Teen

No parent is perfect. And even good parents can learn how to connect with their son or daughter in deeper, more meaningful ways. Teenagers need a lot — freedom and responsibility and encouragement and boundaries. But mostly, they need you!

We need to be humble, teachable, courageous and other-centered,” says Dr. Kathy Koch.

We need to be diligent and follow through to establish new communication patterns. [The effects] probably won’t be immediate or easy or comfortable. But our teens are worth the effort.

And we’re here to help.

If you’d like to share more of your story, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our licensed or pastoral counselors would be honored to listen to you, pray with you, and offer biblical wisdom. They can also suggest referrals to qualified counselors and Christian therapists in your area.

In the meantime, we invite you to look through the recommended resources below and throughout this Q&A.

Additional Insights on the Strong-Willed Child

Being Your Daughter’s Hero

Better Ways to Communicate With Your Children (Part 1 of 2) 

Better Ways to Communicate With Your Children (Part 2 of 2) 

Connecting With Your Child (Part 1 of 2)

Connecting With Your Child (Part 2 of 2)

Connecting With Your Tech-Absorbed Kid

Connecting With Your Teen or Young Adult (Part 1 or 2)

Connecting With Your Teen or Young Adult (Part 2 of 2)

Creating a Safe Family Where Your Children Can Thrive (Part 1 of 2)

Creating a Safe Family Where Your Children Can Thrive (Part 2 of 2)

Empowering Your Family Through Love and Respect (Part 1 of 2)

Empowering Your Family Through Love and Respect (Part 2 of 2)

The Gift of a Strong-Will

Giving Your Teen Freedom to Become an Adult (Part 1)

Giving Your Teen Freedom to Become an Adult (Part 2)

God Has a Plan for Your Strong-Willed Child

Leading Your Child Through Emotional Milestones (Part 1 of 2)

Leading Your Child Through Emotional Milestones (Part 2 of 2)

Parenting the Heart of Your Teen

Parenting Your Tweens and Teens With Respect (Part 1 of 2) 

Parenting Your Tweens and Teens With Respect (Part 2 of 2) 

Practical Advice for Parenting Strong-Willed Children (Part 1 of 2)

Practical Advice for Parenting Strong-Willed Children (Part 2 of 2)

Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect (Part 1 of 2)

Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect (Part 2 of 2)

Respecting a Child With a Strong Will

Simple Tips for Growing Closer to Your Kids

Speaking Your Teen’s Love Language

Understanding How Your Teen Thinks (Part 1 of 2)

Understanding How Your Teen Thinks (Part 2 of 2)

What Your Kids Need Most to Grow Up Well (Part 1 of 2)

What Your Kids Need Most to Grow Up Well (Part 2 of 2)

When You Have a Strong-Willed Child

Websites outside of Focus on the Family may contain content that doesn’t necessarily align with our perspective in all areas. We offer them for informational purposes only.

8 Essential Tips for Parents

Six Principles of Scientific Thinking in Psychology

12 Cognitive Biases Explained: How to Think Better and More Logically

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