How to Talk to Your Teen

A guidance counselor's cheat sheet for healthy communication.

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on September 01, 2015
2 min read

Fashions come and go. Technology innovates. New slang words arrive on the scene. But one thing never changes when it comes to high school, year after graduating year: the concerns of teenagers.

Today's kids share the same worries about sex, drugs, and alcohol that teens have had for decades, says high-school counselor Kevin Kuczynski, author of Behind the Counselor's Door: Teenagers' True Confessions, Trials, and Triumphs. They stress over academic pressures and battle gnawing fears about their future. They worry a good work ethic is simply not enough to combat rising competition for college. And they openly complain how few adults listen to them.

Kuczynski, who has worked at Cousino High School in Warren, MI, since 2002, has plenty of guidance for parents seeking insights into the minds of American teenagers. Some of his tips:

Please, talk to your teens about sex. "Discussing dating issues and sex is paramount," Kuczynski says. Yet he observes how many parents are either "too apprehensive to talk" about sex or perhaps haven't broached the subject since early puberty, figuring they'd covered the basics once, so why do it again? "How do kids learn about sex and pregnancy, then?" Kuczynski asks. "From their peers, that's how." And while some kids learn from others' mistakes, just as many are influenced by their peers' riskier decisions.

For example, Kuczynski says most kids he knows believe oral sex is not sex. "If it's not intercourse, it's just heavy petting in their eyes."

As a school guidance counselor, he provides a safe place for teens to openly discuss their questions about sex and relationship problems, and guarantees a nonjudgmental, confidential audience. He also strongly recommends a follow-up discussion with Mom and Dad.

Show respect. Allow kids to speak. Listen. Then weigh in. "It's so important to validate kids' feelings and to treat them as individuals," he says. "Even if I disagree with their stance on an issue, respecting their right to speak allows for further discussion. Only then do I ask questions and learn. If a kid says, 'I'm in love,' I'll ask, 'What does that mean to you?' You learn a lot by hearing the answers."

Expect teens to own their choices. "I like to role-play specific situations," Kuczynski says. Whether it's about drugs and alcohol, relationships, or academic pressures, "I ask a student to look at the choices he's making. I ask, 'How will this turn out, going forward? How will people perceive you? What respect will you gain?' It's an opportunity to make them think."

Take college stress seriously. He says academic pressure is not kid stuff. "The pressure of getting great SAT and ACT scores and not knowing where to apply to college" takes its toll. "Parents get caught up in, 'Where can she get in?' as opposed to, 'Who is she and how does she best learn? How can she flourish?'"