Conversations between parents and teenagers (part II)

Initiating conversations: serve

Susan Oh Cha Image Susan Oh Cha | Aug 5, 2013

Photo by Tim Wright.

Read our latest research about having better conversations with teenagers in this post.

As parents, we have all kinds of reasons to talk to our kids. Often we resort to talking at our kids. But how often do we really talk with our kids?

When we do pursue conversations with our teenagers, what is our motivation? To listen? To learn? To understand? Or are we hoping to win an argument?

In other words, are we initiating a conversation to share our thoughts and opinions and somehow set our kids straight? This might be appropriate sometimes, but more often it’s a sure way to end the conversation game before it even begins.

Research demonstrates that parent-teen connection provides a protective barrier against mental health issues and poor choices in adolescence.[1] Unfortunately, both parents and teenage kids struggle to communicate in ways that keep the conversation ball in the air.

In our first article, Preparing to Converse: At Baseline, my daughter Yumi and I explored the context in which conversations take place, comparing dialogue to a tennis match.[2]

In this second article, we focus on how parents can initiate a conversation that leads to real dialogue with their teenagers.

Initiating Conversations: Serve

Yumi’s View

Most teenagers know their parents want to talk to them. However, many of these conversations seem to end in messages that imply that their kids are somehow not good enough. This might not be parents’ intent but somehow the conversation leaves kids feeling inadequate or “bad”.

Who wants to hear that kind of talk all the time?

Sometimes we as kids can feel our parents’ love and protection; other times, kids just feel hurt by how much the parents’ goal in the discussion seems to be about what the parents want and how the kids don’t meet their expectations.

When I prepare to serve the ball in tennis, I look crosscourt to see where I want the ball to land. I always set a target for myself on the other side. Similarly, I think if more parents had a clear goal of knowing and understanding their kids, their overtures for conversations would have more chance of being successful. Their teenagers will be more willing to take part in the conversation.

There are different types of serves (e.g., top-spin, slice, flat). Many players try to “ace” their serves, hitting the ball to their opponents in such a way that the opponents cannot return the serve, thereby winning the point. This kind of conversation ends quickly, allowing only one party to state what she wants. Sometimes acing a serve feels really good. When I say something that makes my mom speechless, it can feel really gratifying. But I know that it doesn’t make for a meaningful conversation or a good relationship, especially if these kinds of serves occur too often.

Other times, my goal is to hit a serve that the receiver can return in order to have a fun rally. This happens during friendly matches and practices. If more parent-teen discussions felt like this – an enjoyable exchange of thoughts and feelings – more kids would want to engage with their parents.

Susan’s View

Have you ever had a conversation with your teenager that goes something like this?

Parent: How was school?

Teen: Fine.

Parent: What did you do?

Teen: Nothing.

Parent: Didn’t you have a test today?

Teen: Uh-huh.

Parent: Well, how did you do?

Teen: I don’t know.

Parent: You must have some idea?

Teen: I just told you, I don’t know!

This interaction typifies a “closed” communication that can be heard across many homes with adolescents. Rather than connecting, this parent’s repeated efforts to begin a conversation end in an aggravating disconnect: None of the serves are returned. Why is that?

Perhaps the fault can be found at “baseline;” in other words, the context in which this conversation occurs may be a relationship that is angry and painful rather than respectful and nurturing. Perhaps there are differing goals at play: The parent’s goal is to either assuage his fear that his child may have done poorly on her test or confirm his worry, and subsequently, lecture his child on how to perform better next time. The teenager’s goal is to shut down her parent and make sure that he does not glean any information that could be used to “smash” her – a very hard shot that is difficult to return and leaves her feeling diminished.

Practicing Better Serves

In order to have a better understanding of why your “serves” are not returned, it is helpful to spend some time reflecting on how you usually begin a conversation with your teenager. Is there a familiar script that you follow in your discussions?

Think back to earlier today: What did you say, and how did your teenager respond?

As noted in our first article, Preparing to Converse: At Baseline, a good starting place is to raise your awareness of how you approach your kids. To increase your attention to how you’re serving the conversation ball over the net to your kids, we suggest that you keep a record of how you initiate discussions for the next week. This will help you have a clearer idea of what helps or hinders your interactions with your teenager. Here is a possible chart you can use to keep track of what occurs in your conversations (with an example):

Download Chart

As Yumi mentions above, if a parent’s goal is to know and understand her child, she might be more successful in initiating conversation where there is an exchange of thoughts and feelings. Here are some better possible opening shots:

  1. Parent: I read in the newspaper that… What do you think?
  2. Parent: You seem… How can I help you feel better?
  3. Parent: I just saw on Facebook that your friend posted… How do you feel about that?
  4. Parent: I heard from some other parents at school that… Why do you think this happened?
  5. Parent: This is what I understand occurred today. What made you decide to…?
  6. Parent: Looking back, would you make the same decision? Why or why not?
  7. Parent: You made the choice to… What do you think your consequences should be?
  8. Parent: I had a great day today because… How about you?
  9. Parent: Yesterday I blew it when I… Will you forgive me? Can we do that conversation over?

The main theme in the above “serves” is the parent’s desire to know and understand her child. The goal is not to set up the conversation in such a way as to win, but rather to relate to her teenager’s experiences. By demonstrating this openness and willingness to appreciate her child’s perspectives (which may at the outset seem outrageous or unreasonable at times), the parent is

  1. Indicating that she is a safe person to talk to,
  2. Reducing the child’s defenses, which lessens the possibility of unnecessary conflict, and
  3. Modeling the very behavior she wants his child to exhibit towards her.

Getting the Timing Right

One more factor to consider is the timing of your “serves.” There are probably times in the day that are better than others in increasing the likelihood of a “return” from your adolescent. First thing in the morning may not be the best moment to begin a conversation that leads to connection. When they are busy gaming, doing homework, or chatting with their friends – these are not the best times to engage either. Your kids will find your efforts intrusive and annoying.

Instead, family mealtimes might be a good place to begin conversations that are meaningful and even fun.[3]

Sometimes you can catch them in a reflective mood where they are more readily available to converse. Other possible moments might include riding in the car together to or from school or activities, going out to eat at their favorite restaurants, doing projects together, or playing together in some way.

Getting the timing right requires being aware of who your kids are and what they want. From the first shot to the last, demonstrating interest in knowing and understanding your kids can lead to “rallies” that are both healthy and enjoyable.

As you work on your serve, in Part 3 of this series we return to focus on how to sustain conversations with your teenager.

Action Points

  • Begin logging your conversation “serves” this week as depicted in the chart above.
  • Pay attention to whether your “serves” are returned – how often and under what conditions.
  • Repeat the words/phrases/questions that lead to meaningful responses and eliminate those approaches that do not.
  • Ask your spouse or a friend for input on what they observe in conversations between you and your teenage child.

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1. Resnick M. D., Bearman, P.S., Blum, R. W., Bauman, K. E., Harris, K. M., Jones, J., Tabor, J., Beuhring, T., Sieving, R. E., Shew, M, Ireland, B., Bearinger, L. H., & Udry, J. R. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: findings from the national longitudinal study on adolescent health. Journal of American Medical Association, 278(10), 823-32.

2. Cha, S. O, & Cha, Y. B. (2013). Conversations between parents and teenagers: Improving your game, Part 1: Preparing to converse: At baseline. Fuller Youth Institute E-Journal. /articles/conversations-between-parents-and-teenagers

3. Offer, S. (2013). Assessing the relationship between family mealtime communication and adolescent emotional well-being using the experience sampling method. Journal of Adolescence, 36(3), 577-85.

Susan Oh Cha Image
Susan Oh Cha

Dr. Susan Oh Cha is a licensed clinical psychologist with over two decades of experience working in various settings. She holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She co-authored Guest Pass: Access to Your Teen's World with her daughter, Yumi. In addition to private practice as a psychologist, Susan also coaches families through the college search and application process.

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