Conversation Tools

Every parent of a teen has experienced it: that rare moment when your teen opens up and shares information with you about his or her life. It’s a joy.

But every parent also knows that much of the time, talking to a teen can be a bit of a struggle. In fact, parents often think that teens don’t listen and what a parent says doesn’t matter.

Parents do matter. What you say does make a difference. Research shows that nearly four in 10 teens (38 percent) report that parents most influence their decisions about sex, compared to only 22 percent reporting that friends most influence their decision.[1]

The first step in having good conversations with your teen is to think, in a quiet moment, how you feel about whatever it is you want to talk about with your teen. It is important to be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with your teen. Then, take advantage of the teachable moments in your lives and take some conversation tips from parents who’ve been in your shoes.

Teachable Moments

Choosing Your Moment

Everyday situations can offer a natural way to ease into a conversation with a teen. That can be a lot easier than telling your teen, “We need to talk.” And better received too. Many parents report, for example, that they often talk to their teen when they are driving in their car. Perhaps it's because there is very little eye contact when driving, something a teen may find a bit less nerve-wracking. Maybe it's the fact that the conversation can end and the radio can be turned back up, offering an easy transition back into less stressful topics.

Remember, your goal is not to deliver a lecture or scare either one of you. Your goal is to have a conversation. And that conversation takes place over time, sometimes in bits and pieces.

Conversation Starters

Maybe it’s a scene from a movie or TV show. Perhaps it’s a song lyric or a news story. Or it could be something that has happened in the neighborhood. These, or anything else that seems timely, can be effective conversation starters.

A good way to start is simply to ask, “What do you think about that?” And “that” might be:

  • A peer or family member learns she is pregnant
  • A television show discusses teen relationships
  • A news report on something involving teens
  • A popular song on the radio that talks about relationships

If your son or daughter answers, “I dunno” or something like that, say, “Well, let me share what I think.” Don’t lecture. Just use it as a jumping-off point to talk about your views and feelings.

You might also ask, “Do you know anybody that has happened to?”

Conversation Tips

Teens say that they are uncomfortable talking about sex with their parents because they worry it will make their parents angry, or that their parents will assume they are doing some things they might not actually be doing. In other words, teens say they are afraid their parents will “freak out.” So that’s the first conversation tip—don’t freak out. You may be freaking out on the inside, but on the outside, try to keep calm.

Keep your composure. Remain calm. Becoming angry or overreacting to a question or mistake can upset your teen, or worse, silence any hope of future dialogue. Instead, listen and ask open-ended questions.

Be present. Parents have a lot going on these days. When you have a chance to talk with your teen though, try to put some of those worries and activities aside. Pay attention to the conversation and don’t do too many other things at the same time. You don’t have to drop everything; you can cook or do laundry while you talk. Just be sure to listen and make certain your teen knows you are hearing every word. 

Be sympathetic. Let your teen know you understand how challenging life as an adolescent can be. Your teen may not believe you can really relate. Help teens know that you understand that the social pressures and obligations of a teen can feel like a lot. Encourage them to stay focused on school and other priorities.

Stress safety. Regardless of your views on the timing of sex, safety is an important part of the message to give your teen. Stress the absolute necessity of using a condom every single time. And stress the importance of using birth control. Don't lecture or nag, but don’t be too shy to emphasize this point.

Provide the facts. Give teens complete and honest information. Make sure they understand that condoms aren't just for preventing pregnancy, but also for reducing the likelihood of contracting STDs and HIV. Make sure they know that birth control methods do not necessarily provide protection against STDs and HIV.[2]

To learn more about contraceptive methods, condoms, and STDs, visit OAH's Contraceptive and Condom Use and STD pages, as well as the section of OAH's Adolescent Health Library devoted to reproductive health resources.

Talk with them, instead of preaching. Resist the urge to talk AT them. Instead, share with them. Let them know how you felt and the challenges you faced when you were their age.

Have lots of discussions. Don’t look at this as one huge, overwhelming moment. Keep in mind that talking to your teen is an ongoing conversation. It takes place in bits and pieces over time. It’s not one big talk. Truth be told, when it comes to important topics like relationships, your teen does want to hear from you, but might find talking comfortable for only a few minutes at a time. Give your opinion over time, instead of just unloading one large lecture, and allow your teen to think through what you are sharing.

Keep tabs on TV. More than 75 percent of prime-time programs contain sexual content, yet only 14 percent of sexual incidents mention risks or responsibilities of sexual activity.[3]

Make media matter. Eight in 10 teens say the media is a good way to start conversations with parents about sex, love, and relationships.[1] Spend time watching TV or a movie with your teen and use what happens to the characters as a way to start talking about your own values. Movies and TV shows are great conversation starters because they shift the focus away from teens to characters they might identify with.

Chat in the car. You may find the car to be a good place for having conversations that are slightly uncomfortable. You don’t have to look at each other and it can be a private setting. Although teens might prefer to listen to music or look out the window, remember they’re listening to you.

Text your teen. The average teen sends and receives 50 text messages a day, but makes and receives just five phone calls.[4] For teens, and even younger children, real-time text-based communications on a cell phone or other mobile device now are the norm. Send positive text messages to your teen or follow up a conversation with a text that reinforces what you just talked about. And if the popular texting abbreviations don’t come naturally to you, don’t sweat it. Just write the way you talk.

Your text might say something like:

  • It means a lot to me that you told me about the problem you're having with your friends. Being a teen is tough sometimes. But you are doing great. Remember, I'm here to talk more about it if you want to.
  • Good luck on your Math exam today. Proud of you for all the time you spent studying!
  • Your performance yesterday at the concert/in the game was amazing. Let's go out tonight and celebrate!
  • Have fun at the dance! Remember, I'm always happy to give you a ride -- call me or text me if your ride home has been drinking.
  • Hope you'll think more about what we talked about yesterday, and that you'll wait until you're a bit older to have sex. There is no rush and I want to make sure you are ready for it.
  • Thanks for making dinner with me last night. It was great to get to hear about what's going on with your friends and to spend time with you on-on-one. Love you!
  • It was great meeting your boyfriend last night! It felt great that you wanted me to get to know him. I'm always here to talk about the relationships in your life.
  • You have always done things when you were ready for them, not on anyone else's agenda. Keep being true to yourself! Thanks for being honest with me about trying cigarettes. I think it's important to have open communication but for you to remember that smoking is really harmful.

For more texts specific to alcohol use, visit SAMHSA's Sample Text Messages to Help Your Child Avoid Alcohol.

Learn about what kinds of questions to expect from your teen.

[1]
Albert, B. (2012). With one voice: America's adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Retrieved February 11, 2014, from http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/pubs/WOV_2012.pdf
[2]
Office on Women's Health. (2011). Birth control methods fact sheet. Retrieved February 11, 2014, from http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/birth-control-methods.cfm
[3]
Strasburger, V. C. (2010). Sexuality, contraception, and the media. Pediatrics, 126(3), 576-582.
[4]
Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center: Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Last updated: April 23, 2014