Many parents bring their child in for therapy and express that they don’t know how to talk to them about things that are happening with their family (ex. divorce, depression of a family member). Also, I’ve heard from many teenagers that their parents haven’t talked to them about “awkward” topics, such as sex, pornography, dating, or even emotions. However, I have found that when parents have open communication with their children, children tend to be more emotionally healthy.
First, when it comes to talking about sex, pornography, or dating, one of the most common questions I get is, “How do I know what is age-appropriate?” The simple answer to that question is to start with the basics. If the child asks more questions than answer those questions. I have found that if parents are unwilling to answer or feel awkward answering, their children will turn to other sources to get answers. Further, if the children see that the parents feel awkward talking about the subject, then the subject becomes taboo and they feel like they can’t talk with their parents in the future when they have questions.
Another thing to keep in mind when talking with your teenagers about sex is to use correct terms. The terms they usually hear are slang, but it is important for them to understand exactly what you are talking about and the easiest way to avoid confusion is to avoid slang. Further, if you start to get uncomfortable, take some deep breaths and remind yourself that its important for them to know from you. Some parents, mine included, have used books to help when talking to their child/teenager about maturation. Just make sure that you know what’s in the book. Read the book with them and answer their questions.
Second, when it comes to feelings, teenagers tend to have a lot of them. I have heard from parents that they are burnt out listening to the emotional rollercoaster, or that they don’t know how to react when they feel like their teenager’s emotions are silly, or they simply do not understand what their child is feeling because they, the parent, are not good with emotions. It’s important to listen to teenagers and help them learn to regulate their own emotions. I’ve found that most parents feel pressure to fix their teenager’s problems or to make their children happy. However, sometimes the best way to help them is to listen and then help them problem solve their own problems. For example, if they come to you emotionally distraught over being left out, it can be helpful to listen to their feelings, let them know that you are listening by repeating back a part of what they said, then ask them what they can do in the future when this happens (or ask what they need to do to feel better in this moment).
As a parent, many difficult conversations need to be had with your teenagers. It can feel overwhelming at times if you don’t know what to say or how to say it; but if you can push through, you will help your children learn valuable skills they need later in life. You can help develop a relationship with your teenager of trust and openness that can help them safely navigate their way through those challenging teenage years.
Alexis is a therapist at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families. She is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist and specializes in working with children and adolescents in therapy.