How parents can have better conversations with teenagers

Two phrases to cut and two to start using to boost your family conversation skills

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Jul 7, 2021

“I just had the best conversation with my teenager!”

If you’re anything like the two of us, you probably feel more than a little envy when another parent shares those words.

But if we’re honest, we don’t hear them often. And for two researchers who study how to help parents and leaders better understand teenagers, we confess that we say these words too infrequently ourselves.

It’s not news that parents and teenagers typically struggle to understand each other. But we refuse to let this tendency stop us from trying to connect with our kids. If you’re reading this post, we bet you can identify with us.

You aren’t satisfied with the way you talk to your teenager now.

You want your conversations to move past dead-ends.

You want to build a closer relationship.

Here’s good news: Our latest research reveals a few tips you can start using right now to have better conversations with your teenager this week.

Your teenager is a walking bundle of questions

Sometimes young people ask their questions out loud. More commonly, they keep them bottled up in their curious minds and conflicted souls. But every teenager—yours included—is a walking bundle of questions.

Based on surveys and focus groups our Fuller Youth Institute team conducted with over 2,200 teenagers, as well as in-depth multi-session interviews with 27 diverse high school students nationwide, we believe that every young person is trying to answer three big questions:

  • Who am I? as they search for identity,
  • Where do I fit? in their pursuit of belonging, and
  • What difference can I make? as they seek out their purpose.

Parents also wrestle with these three questions. But for those of us over 30 (some of us way over 30!), these questions are at a low simmer. For our kids, they stay at a rolling boil through high school and young adulthood.

Out of this research, we’ve written our newest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, for adults like you: parents, stepparents, grandparents, foster parents, and caregivers who want to have better conversations and connections with your teenagers. Journeying with our maturing kids while they blaze their own paths toward better answers to their big questions takes time—both ours and theirs.

It also takes new vocabulary.

As parents learning this new vocabulary ourselves, we’d like to suggest a couple of phrases to cut and a couple of phrases to start using to boost your conversational skills with your own kids.

1. Stop adding “just” to every request

The Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen is known for drawing young crowds who can relate to its authentic exploration of teen anxiety. The show opens with a spotlight shining on seventeen-year-old Evan Hansen, sitting on his bed, starting at a letter to himself. He writes,

Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.

Because today, all you have to do is just be yourself.


But also confident. That’s important. And interesting. Easy to talk to. Approachable. But mostly be yourself. That’s the big, that’s number one. Be yourself. Be true to yourself.[1]

In ten short sentences, Evan gives himself the advice to “be yourself” four times. One of those times he adds a small but critical word: just.

As parents, we add “just” to our advice when what we’re asking for seems relatively simple and straightforward. At least to us.

Just make sure to get your volleyball stuff together before practice.”

Just take ten minutes and clean up your room.”

And of course, “Just be yourself.”

Most of us adults find it easier to just be ourselves. We’d rather play the personality cards in our hand than grab new ones from the deck. But teenagers are still figuring out which identity cards to keep and which to discard. The admonition to “(just) be yourself” raises the stakes, leaving them wondering if they’ll eventually have to fold.

The same is true for adding “just” to anything related to belonging or purpose. Teenagers feel like the answers to these questions are anything but simple.

Just go to the youth group party.

Just decide which colleges to apply to.

Just pick a way to volunteer this year.

It’s not wrong to ask our teenagers about these topics—in fact, it’s important to do so. But we can help free them from pressure by watching how much we sprinkle “just” into our requests. Perhaps especially when the “just” is about a big question like identity, belonging, or purpose.

2. Stop saying “When I was your age …”

Maybe, like us, you’ve used this expression. But here’s a tip for better conversations: Cut it from your vocabulary altogether.

Think about the tone in your voice when those words slide out: critical, judgmental, dismissive. This statement rarely precedes an empathetic response. Here’s the truth: We may have been teenagers once, but we’ve never been “their age.”

We can remember what it was like to be a teenager, but we’ve never been teenagers in their world.

On the flipside of “When I was your age” is another fallacy: “You’re so different from me.” We often assume that young people are so different—so other—from us that we couldn’t possibly understand them.

For example, this generation of digital natives seem glued to their phones. Every moment is a broadcast experience, filtered and posted for the world’s reaction.

But rather than simply critique kids’ tech habits we don’t understand, we can empathize with a need we all share regardless of age: relationships. When you were in high school, you may have spent evenings at home in your bedroom on the family telephone—perhaps with a long curly cord plugged into a wall—talking to your best friend. Your parents may have even decided to pay extra for call waiting so other calls could get through during your hours-long conversations. Or maybe you came of age with an early Nokia or Razr cell phone—not yet “smart,” but it definitely helped you stay connected with your friends.

You’ve been there. Relationships matter—to all of us, but especially to teenagers. Friendships are key to figuring out the big questions of identity, belonging, and purpose. Tap into your own memories from the past to strengthen your empathy muscles and build deeper connections with the kids in front of you today.

So next time you see something you don’t understand and are tempted to retort, “When I was your age …” remember to first empathize, then you can listen for the big question underneath the behavior. You’ll be well on your way to a stronger connection.

3. Start saying, “Tell me more”

I (Brad) don’t know about you, but I often find myself in conversations with young people that bump along awkwardly and end abruptly. In the face of one-word answers to my questions, I get stumped. Can you relate?

But then I started using a key phrase FYI teammate Steve Argue has championed for years. In conversations and connections with young people, try using this simple three-word invitation: Tell me more.

Memorize those words right now.

Of course, “Tell me more about that” might still yield a short answer. But sometimes it opens enough of a crack for an adult to peer inside the elusive experience of the reserved teenager. There are all kinds of variations on this approach. We could ask for more specificity, like “What was good about the game?” or “What made it good?”

Steve will often say, “The first question isn’t as important as the second or third question.” That’s because the first question we ask comes from our agenda; what follows emerges from the unfolding conversation.

4. Start asking, “What’s your plan?”

We frequently feel like we have advice to give our kids. That’s normal. We’ve lived longer and gained wisdom from the road.

But in the face of a dilemma, if we jump in too quickly with a “what you need to do” suggestion, we risk communicating that a teenager isn’t capable of handling problems on their own. We rob them of the value of sorting things out, making decisions, and learning from failure.

The opposite response can also be crippling. “This is totally under your control” sounds empowering on the surface (and when they’re ready for it, can actually be empowering). But putting the entire responsibility on a teenager to solve a problem can sound like the young person is to blame. If they had only tried harder or not made a mistake or avoided a situation, they would not have ended up here. And now they—on their own—have to dig their way out.

If you’re like me (Kara), you don’t want to nag your kids. You just want to know when they’ll reply to their grandma’s text or follow up with their teacher about a missed math test. But in their ears, it sounds like badgering.

That’s why I’m so grateful for this three-word question: What’s your plan?[2]

In the last twenty-four hours, I’ve asked my teenagers the following:

What’s your plan for cleaning your room?

What’s your plan for today?

What’s your plan for your meeting with your college counselor?

Our kids feel like they have agency (which they do!), and I get (at least some) assurance that they are on top of things.

And finally: Don’t overdo it

As parents, we’re unaware of how our attempts to provide support annoy teenagers—unless we ask them. So occasionally I (Kara) ask my kids, “What could I do that would make it easier for you to talk with me about big stuff?”

Their most common responses? “Please stop asking so many questions.”

As well as “Don’t make a ‘big thing’ out of what we talk about.”

Do I still ask questions and sometimes bring up past experiences? You bet, but probably about half as much as I would if these weren’t my kids’ two pet peeves.

As you work on your own conversation skills with your kids, you might be tempted to overdo it. To ask more questions and prod with follow-ups like “Tell me more” until you’re satisfied.

But when we do this, we not only frustrate our kids—we also miss our own goal of better conversations and stronger relationships. Pick one or two of these tips to try this week, then circle back and pick up another tip for the next week (feel free to bookmark this post to come back to later!)

We wrote more about this, plus over 300 other questions you can ask a teenager (just one or two at a time!), in 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.

Tweet this: Parents, want to build a closer relationship with your kids? Here are a few tips you can start using right now to have better conversations with your teen this week.

3 Big Questions Book Cover

Unlock the potential of the teenagers you care about most

The teenagers in your life are searching for answers to their 3 biggest questions:

Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference can I make? 

Kara Powell and Brad Griffin tap into new research to equip you with essential tools to relate to the young people you care about.

Buy now

Image by Warren Wong

[1] Steven Levenson, Benji Pasek, and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hanson (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2017), 8.

[2] Credit for this zinger goes to Christine Carter, The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2020), 25.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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