Teen Talk

Teen Talk: How to Effectively Handle Difficult Conversations with Your Teen

With prom, graduation and senior week upon us, now is the time to talk with your teen about making good choices, and staying safe while having fun. For parents, it can be very stressful to consider that your child may engage in behaviors that can have long-term, even irreversible consequences – things like reckless driving, alcohol/drug experimentation, and unprotected sex.  However, the good news is that teenage years are also a really wonderful time to support your child in becoming independent and achieving new goals.  

University of Maryland adolescent specialists give insight regarding how to effectively handle difficult conversations and situations with your teen.

MEET OUR EXPERTS

Jack Gladstein, MD  
Professor of Pediatrics & Neurology
Interim Division Head, Pediatric Neurology
Interim Division Head, Ambulatory Medicine
University of Maryland School of Medicine


David B. Pruitt, MD 
Professor of Psychiatry & Pediatrics
Director, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
University of Maryland School of Medicine


Gloria Reeves, MD  
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
University of Maryland School of Medicine


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What are the top concerns parents bring to you regarding their teenager?
Dr. Gladstein: The top concerns parents bring to me during their childs’ appointment are school performance, drugs and alcohol usage.

What advice can parents give their teens regarding alcohol use?
Dr. Pruitt: Not surprisingly, many adolescents by the age of 18 have experimented with alcohol or drugs. For that reason, I recommend that parents proactively talk to and rehearse with their child and teen how to handle situations when other kids are drinking. Also, stress the importance of going to social gatherings with friends who also are comfortable not drinking. Such peer support can help your teen withstand the pressure from drinking teens to join in. 

How should parents talk with their child if they’ve been “caught” with alcohol?
Dr. Pruitt: If your teen has told you or has been caught engaging in alcohol abuse, you should initiate a discussion with your child to determine the extent of the drinking. If alcohol abuse is ongoing, and if you become aware of initial drug use, then I would recommend first reaching out to your teen’s primary care physician.

How can parents encourage good decision making? 
Dr. Reeves:  Start with the decision-making process instead of the behavior.  It is very tempting to begin and end a conversation with directives, e.g. “Don’t ever use alcohol until you are 21 years old.”  However, your child is more likely to engage in the desired behavior if there is a shared goal, and if they take ownership over some of the decision.

Dr. Gladstein: It’s also important for parents to model good behavior and share successes and failures from when they were kids. Be sure to make expectations clear.

How can parents discuss sex with their teen?
Dr. Pruitt: Discuss the real-life consequences that sexual activity can have, and discuss what intimacy means to you as an adult. Is this something that your teen feels like they can take on? Or, is this something that they think should wait? Start by simply opening up a discussion, and gauge the conversation from there. Look for comfortable opportunities over time to discuss these important topics with your teen.

How can parents prevent their child from running with the wrong crowd?
Dr. Reeves: It is normal for teenagers to request “parent-free” time with their friends. However, there are lots of opportunities to getting to know your child’s peer group. Offer to drop off/pick up at events, or to host a pizza night so they can hang out together, and ask your child about friends during quiet 1:1 moments. It’s helpful to open up the conversation by expressing your interest and reinforcing positive aspects of relationships with your child, e.g. “It seems like you’ve made a lot of new friends this year at school. What do you like to do when you hang out together? I really like how it sounds like you look out for each other.” If you continue an ongoing dialogue about friends, it may be more comfortable for your child to open up about challenging or new situations that come up.  

How can parents better communicate with their teen?
Dr. Gladstein: Eat dinner together, keep open lines of communication, and adopt a “no cell phone time” mantra when spending time together.

What’s your number one tip for parents of teens?
Dr. Reeves: Practice an open door policy. It is tough as a parent to open yourself up to hearing about big stresses or even big screw ups that happen in the day to day life as a teenager. You want the best for your child so you may inadvertently reinforce them telling you what you want to hear rather than the truth. Think about how you ask your child for information, e.g. “Were you texting when you were driving?” will get you a very different response from, “I know everyone, even me, gets tempted to text when something is urgent or important. When was the last time you dealt with that?”. Give your child the expectation that you know that they are not perfect and you care more about honesty than false perfection.  

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