We can debate the causes, but the facts are that today’s teens are reporting higher levels of emotional distress than any before them. So how do you support teens and young people with whatever life is throwing at them so they don’t just survive – but even thrive?

So many of the challenges as we interact with teens are about just that – the talking! Teen years can be volatile, and in a season where emotions can flare up quickly and suddenly, how do you have good conversations with teenagers about topics which might be difficult for both of you?

Here’s some top tips for how to talk to teens – whether as a parent or as youth worker/teacher/good mate …

1 – Create Connection

Remember how it felt to be the kid always trying to get your parents’ attention when they were busy? They never had time to talk to you – until the time you were in trouble – and THEN they wanted to talk!

The first steps to good comms with your teens are about the times when a lot less hangs on it – when you can build trust and connect with them without anything too heavy hanging on it. The trouble is they so often choose moments to chat which don’t really work for you. Like those late night conversations when you really wanted to go to bed early, or the after school slots when actually you had a work call to make. Or weekends when really you are craving time to yourself but they seem to be bored and want to hang out with you … far from inconvenient, every one of these times are great opportunities to build something amazing – a pattern where your teen knows s/he can chat to you about anything.

The key to them is not to be too all or nothing. Just because they want to chat doesn’t mean that you need to give up 3 hours of your life for intensive analysis of world (or life) events. In fact most teens don’t think like that – chances are it is a much more fleeting moment for them. So relax! Have a laugh, chat about that crazy moment at school today, maybe even share something crazy from yours. In all these moments you build trust and space where the bigger conversations feel natural when they are needed.

2 – Think casual

Ever been called into your bosses office for a ‘chat’ and had that moment when they ask you to sit down. You know in that moment this is more than a passing quick chat over something trivial – and your alert system is on straight away – adrenaline flowing, tension building .…

Now imagine yourself in your teenagers shoes. A difficult conversation needs to be had … or they know they are about to be confronted over something. So, you ask them to sit down at the kitchen table and you take up your position opposite them … and the same thing happens. In fact more so, as the development of the teenage brain means teenagers naturally feel more exposed and self conscious – so anything which puts the spotlight on them feels doubly uncomfortable.

At all costs avoid your conversations feeling like an interrogation! Teenagers find confrontational styles of chat much more difficult than adults (though actually many adults don’t exactly warm to it either) so be clever and capture moments which are less intense. You may even find that teenagers bring up tricky topics at times which to you feel crazy – when you are in the middle of other things and can’t focus – but that is entirely the point. Casually asking about something significant over the fruit and veg in Sainsburys may well feel a lot less scary than arranging a formal ‘chat’.

So, when chatting, avoid face to face positioning and grab moments you are sat next to them – particularly if something else is going on that diverts the intensity of the attention off them. Car journeys, for example, are great places to chat (and also limit the opportunities for storming off mid conversation if that is a risk factor). Think also about lighting and sound – this is one reason why the dark may be your friend and why teens like late night conversation so much – it is simply a lot less intense. Gone into their room to find it murky and lit only by a small nightlight and/or twinkly lights? Resist the temptation to turn the overhead light on! Can’t hear yourself think over the music they have on? Don’t turn it off and make them face exposing, stark silence as a backdrop to whatever they have to tell you.

3 – Avoid the Ambush

So many combinations with teenagers go something like this: You know you need to talk to them, they know you are likely to be trying to have something out with them – and so a game of chess can develop where you try to out manoeuvre them and catch them sometime they cannot escape the conversation whilst they do all they can to not have the conversation!

The thing everyone knows about chess is this: you cannot play chess against someone and be on the same side. And in the conversations you are having with your teenager you really do want to be on the same side – even if you are disagreeing. So tempting as it might be, try to avoid the ambush. Remember that teenage emotions are triggered more dramatically and flare from 0-10 much quicker than adult ones – so if you make them feel trapped or angry they are much more likely to manage that badly – meaning your conversation has a much lower chance of going well.

Instead, why not talk to them about how and when you might be able to chat more? A gently warning ‘So I heard that you got a detention today and we really need to chat about that sometime – can I maybe bring you a cuppa in half an hour or so?’ – or even (in sensitive moments) a text message or non verbal first approach can give your teen time to think about how and when to have the chat – and how to react and manage it better. Yes there’s a risk they may not want to talk to you about it – but if that is the case the best you can do is maximise any chance of the conversation going well – forcing it is unlikely to help.

Don’t forget your own emotions will influence how a conversation goes too. When we ourselves are feeling emotional (especially angry/frustrated!) the temptation is to want to (or even feel we need to) have it out there and then. But this is rarely the best time. In fact the more you feel you want to have a conversation right this minute, the more it might be better to delay. Remember you are the adult here, so model something well in how you manage your own frustration – hold a conversation util a good moment and grab an opportunity when things are relaxed, or there’s a less emotionally charged moment to talk.

If they really do not want to discuss this with you, ask yourself a tough question – is there someone better placed to have this chat? Particularly as parents we can not be the best people, particularly in sensitive topics or situations we are ourselves involved in. Part of your teenagers’ job as their brain matures is to emotionally detatch from you and become more independent, so they are primed NOT to seek your advice at times. This is where other adults supporting your teens become worth their weight in gold, so do what you can to encourage these relationships – Aunts, Uncles, God parents, youth leaders etc are about to become your best friends.

4. Inform don’t instruct

Here’s another typical teenage conversation scenario – they are doing something or have done something, and you want to tell them why they are wrong, or unwise, or have handled it badly. They do not think there is a problem, except that you want to have that conversation with them! The temptation and risk is that so many conversations become about you telling them what you think they should do – instructing them or giving rules. Inevitably sometimes we HAVE to do that, but we want those moments to feel rare. Remember their job is to grow in independence and start to take their own responsibility and make their own decisions – so the more they feel controlled and limited by us the more frustrated they will be.

What this means is that where possible our default should be to inform rather than instruct – not to TELL them things, but to create good conversational spaces to explore topics together. This includes sharing your perspective, thoughts or ideas – but also means listening to theirs, and even researching or exploring together. This is vital – because it is about journeying together, but also because you can teach really good approaches to most of life’s most difficult situations or decisions as you model this alongside them. The reality is that the 21st century world is so complex and fast moving you just won’t be able to give them a toolkit or rule book for every situation they are likely to encounter. Teaching good ways of analysing, reflecting on decisions and deciding how to act and react is vital.

This means that proactively making space for good conversations is a really important thing to do whatever your role with teens. Think about arranging a regular coffee catch up time with them, or try to take an occasional day out or even short trip together. If you are parenting teens and can plan time with each of them individually even better. Build the relationship with them as individuals and enjoy finding out about their world and perspective. Teens are amazing – their energy and zest for life is immense and they will know way more than you about some fascinating topics. Grow genuine interest and you will buy the right to share your own thoughts, ideas, tips and tricks for life. But remember – their job is to decide what THEY think, not to just parrot what YOU think. So be prepared – they may decide they don’t agree with you. In fact sometimes there will be seasons where it may feel they are deliberately disagreeing with everything you say. This does not mean you have failed. Create the space well and where they have genuine worries, questions or problems they will be able to come to you.

5. Tackle technology

One of the biggest defining characteristics of the current rising generation is that they are amongst the first to have grown up with the continual influence of mobile technology, social media and the online world. This is significantly influencing everything – from how they think, focus and react to the way they make decisions or decide what to engage with. For example there is good evidence that teenagers and young adults are very unlikely to engage with an event or situation in real life unless they have already engaged with it online.

This might feel like a nuisance to you – but it is also a tremendous opportunity. Rather than retreating out of technology and declaring yourself a technological dinosaur – can you make some steps to explore their world? Social media, texting and mobile technology often offer a first step into conversations or communication which is less confrontational and more relaxed and can therefore be brilliant for conversation starting with teens. Remember their value for not just the big deal chats – but for building and maintaining relationships with teens whose lives can be incredibly busy. Seen a funny article or something you think will interest them? Share it with them! Know they are having a rough time? How about a little text to encourage? They may never mention it but those things may mean more than you will ever know – and each little connection is about building that relationship and trust so that when you need to have a more tricky conversation you have built a good foundation in advance.

Mobile technology also offers some great opportunities in helping teens develop independence whilst also managing the inevitable parental anxiety we all feel. But avoid stalking them. Be pro-active – rather than you calling them incessantly, can you agree text check in times when they will let you know they are ok and what they are up to? Remember as the adult, it is your job to think in advance about what comms you need, not theirs. And be open – there are apps you can use to see where they are at any time – but don’t snoop on them without them knowing. Respect goes both ways – so chat to them about their privacy and where that begins and ends. Every teenager is different – but on the whole the more independence you can offer the better for their growing confidence and capability – and for their relationship with you.