Troubleshooting Communication With Your Teen

Troubleshooting Communication With Your Teen

Navigating Communication Challenges: Strategies for Building Connection

Communication can become a bumpy road as your child stretches further into their teenage years. If they are following a healthy developmental path, they are forming more of an identity that is unique and separate from the family identity that they subscribed to before puberty. This self-focus can make family communication a tricky terrain. 

First, we want to recognize that this selfishness that you are seeing in your teen is a sign of health. Assuming they are behaving as if the world revolves around them, we will translate this as you having sheltered them from experiencing significant trauma. They have formed this belief that the world will revolve around their needs. This is a gift you have given them of feeling safe and able to explore their desires, wants and needs. 

From this point until adulthood, they will take what they know about who they are and what they need and work hard to reduce limitations to those desires and needs. Helping them to see how their decisions effect others around them and the costs of the lifestyle they prefer is the next step along this journey to independent adulthood. It is important to continue to support them in forging a way. To untangle the mess, let’s start with revisiting the basics. 

1. Get on the Same Page:

   Your teenager is in the process of shaping their identity, and you are navigating your own path. This self-focus often complicates family communication. Your job is to be excellent at active listening. Use your nonverbal communication skills, reflect back what you hear them saying and ask if they feel fully understood. These skills will continue to model for them how to communicate in a healthy way and it will eliminate as many misunderstandings as possible. 

2. Define Your Why:

   Before diving into conversations, identify within yourself the purpose behind your communication. You may have the intentions of building a strong relationship that will last through the test of time, establishing a two-way connection where both parties' needs are acknowledged, and/or cultivating a happy and peaceful home environment.

3. Early and often:

   Lay the foundation for effective communication when your child is young and continue to nurture a safe environment over the years, months, weeks and days. Create dedicated times during the day when you are not rushing. With eyes off of your phone and shoulders turned toward your child, invest time in fostering an environment where open communication can thrive. Consider also engaging in activities together without eye contact to ease into any communication that is uncomfortable for your teen. This can potentially help them put their guard down and discuss issues more openly. Examples: driving, walking, playing a game. 

4. Limit Technology:

   Minimize technology during family time. Screens can be distracting and hinder genuine expression of concerns. Excessive screen time may contribute to anxiety and depression in teenagers, depriving them of positive contact with their loved ones within the home. One caveat here may be that your teen would prefer to share information with you or to receive information over text. This may work wonderfully for their chore list (if they need that visual list) or for them to tell you why they feel upset or embarrassed. 

5. Request Eye Contact:

   Encourage appropriate eye contact during conversations. While avoiding eye contact can sometimes be a defense mechanism, it's crucial to create a safe space. Eye contact, when done respectfully, establishes a connection and signifies a united front in resolving conflicts. Note, demanding eye contact is a way of exerting control and should be avoided. 

6. Model Nonverbal Listening Skills:

   We’ll repeat this one because it is so important and easy to miss. Demonstrate effective nonverbal listening skills for your teen to mirror and to help them feel fully understood. Lean in to show attentiveness. Uncross arms and legs for an open stance. Keep facial expressions non-threatening. 

Remember, effective communication is a skill that evolves with time. When you begin to hit rocky roads, return to the basics. Set aside regular time to be available, even if  your teen is not taking advantage. Try changing your tactics and implementing a no-eye contact activity together or writing a note instead of sitting down to talk. Teens become very good at pushing and pulling away from their families because they are working on establishing their unique identity and independence. However, they will continue to need you to provide a safe space for them to touch base and a safety net for when they fall. By implementing these strategies, you not only address messy communication but also foster a healthy, connected family environment.


  1. Hietanen JK. Affective eye contact: an integrative review. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1587. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01587 

  2. Pádua Júnior FP, Prado PH, Roeder SS, Andrade EB. What a smile means: contextual beliefs and facial emotion expressions in a non-verbal zero-sum game. Front Psychol. 2016;7:534. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00534 

  3. Tipper CM, Signorini G, Grafton ST. Body language in the brain: constructing meaning from expressive movement. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015;9:450. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00450 

  4. Rogers SL, Howieson J, Neame C. I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: the benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflict. PeerJ. 2018;6:e4831. doi:10.7717/peerj.4831 

  5. Hargie O. Skilled Interpersonal Communication: Research, Theory and Practice. 7th ed. Routledge; 2021. doi:10.4324/9781003182269