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Talking to Teens: 5 Skills for Success

How to argue constructively with your adolescent.
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WebMD the Magazine - Feature

Imagine this: Your next-door neighbor calls to say she just saw your 16-year-old daughter and two friends hitchhiking near the high school. Worried sick, you jump into your car and, luckily, find her. When you tell her to get in the car, she rolls her eyes and s-l-o-w-l-y crawls into the front seat. As you pull away, she complains you embarrassed her in front of her friends and insists that hitchhiking is safe because she'd never take a ride with "some weirdo."

Logical? No. Developmentally appropriate? Absolutely.

Teens and parents are notorious for locking horns over issues of safety, dress, and speech. Arguments can become so vicious that they damage the parent-child relationship for years to come.

But experts say parents can argue, constructively, with a teen -- and that it's an important skill to learn. First, parents need to realize that teenage brains aren't nearly as developed as their bodies. In fact, MRI studies have shown that teens' frontal lobes -- which are responsible for a number of "mature" thinking processes -- don't fully mature until the early 20s.

Given that your teen isn't operating with a full deck, how do you respond?

Expect Emotion

Because the voice-of-reason frontal lobes are not yet matured, passionate outbursts are developmentally appropriate in teens, whether you're talking about instant messaging or the risks of oral sex.

Stay Calm

Even if your teen is dramatically protesting every word that comes out of your mouth, remain calm and model mature ways of handling emotion. Use "I" statements to express your fear or outrage.

Connect

A 1997 study of 12,000 teens found that one of the single greatest protections against high-risk behavior was the perception of a strong emotional link to a parent. Maddening though a teen can be, blame, shame, and shouting will shut him down. Instead, elicit information with phrases like "What will result from your actions?" or "How will you handle that problem?" Then respect his answers.

Give Plenty of Space

Teens need time alone and time with friends so they can fully hatch from family life. That can be hard for parents, but letting fledgling teens explore the world is just as important as hovering over accident-prone toddlers. Is it nerve-racking? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Set limits and step back.

Say It Again -- and Again

Don't be afraid to follow up -- repeatedly, if necessary. If you pick up your daughter hitchhiking, calmly explain the risks of abduction, rape, and murder. Come back to the topic again the next day to be sure she understands. Then brainstorm solutions for her transportation woes. That way she'll know you care and that you respect her opinion.

Published November 2006.

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