The importance of open communication with teens

Oct 15, 2012 at 8:00 a.m. ET

Maintaining an ongoing dialogue and open communication with your teen is essential during the "facilitator" stage of parenting. This is a very important time in life for both teenagers and their parents.

Communication and respect
Mom talking with teen

Parents need to dig below the surface and really communicate with their kids to provide them with the guidance they need as they head toward adulthood.

The facilitator stage

When children are young, parents make all the decisions for them. As they mature and reach their preteen and teen years, the relationships change. Parents take on the roles of facilitators — which isn't always an easily transition.

"The stage begins when a teen or preteen first shows signs of adult maturity and competency," says Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. "From that time on, the primary role of the parent is to facilitate their offspring's entry into responsible adulthood, rather than to control or protect their offspring. That's appropriate only with young children." Epstein has a Ph.D. from Harvard University, is the author of 15 books and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine.

"A big shift has taken place," explains Allison S. Baker, M.D., director of the Adolescent Program at ColumbiaDoctors Eastside. "Now you watch by the sidelines as your teen tries a variety of things on their own — driving, negotiating peer relationships, organizing themselves for school. Make no mistake about it: You are still a central part of the experience. Your role, however, is to help your child understand and process these new experiences within the context of your family's personal beliefs and values. This is why this is such a notoriously difficult stage of development; the parental instinct is to take over for your child!"

Open communication

During the facilitator stage, open dialogue between parents and teens is a must. If parents don't know what's really happening with teens below the surface, it's not possible to facilitate with the guidance, support and direction they need.

"The ability to keep an open dialogue with teens, especially about problems, is arguably the most important aspect of a parent-child relationship during this challenging developmental stage," says Baker. "Developing this relationship with your teen takes time, persistence and understanding. First, spend time with your teen — during meals, car trips, family vacations and after school. This communicates that you are interested in them and that you value them. Then, model how to dialogue about problems at home — within reason. For example, at dinner, ask for your family's input on a difficult work-related issue. This demonstrates that you are interested in your teen's opinion and simultaneously highlights the value of open communication to work through issues."

"By teaching them consequences and mutual respect, you can explore what they need to do," says Karen Sacks, M.S., L.C.P.C., L.M.H.C., founder and director of the Center for Rational Solutions. "It's OK for parents to ask their teens questions such as, "How do you feel about this, and what do you think the next steps need to be?" Questioning is the best way to facilitate. It's not an adversarial relationship — both are invested in the plan."

More on parenting teens

Teaching your teen about time management
4 Ways to talk so your teen listens
5 Important talking points for your teen

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