The 1 thing to improve communication with teens now

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What if I told you that there is one thing that could drastically improve the quality of your relationships with troubled teens either professionally or at home? That could foster respect, understanding and quality communication, that you could implement today?

It’s the answer to the question I am often asked, “How come you can get through to her?”or “What’s your magic ingredient?”.

The answer, quite simply is a good question. Yes, literally that- a question. Any good, well-intentioned question that has the purpose of increasing understanding. Well actually that multiplied over and over- a truckload of good questions in fact.

What We Usually Do


If we really analyse the content of most of our interactions with our troubled teens, it is very likely that we will discover that we are issuing orders, maybe requests on good days, telling them what to do, or telling them how they’ve done something wrong, commenting on what they say and do, sometimes in frustration, sometimes in anger, often negatively, sometimes sarcastically.

Often we just feel like we are talking to someone who is not interested, doesn’t care, who thinks we are clueless. Consequently we can find we end up mirroring back what they are throwing at us. Sometimes that is anger and frustration, but sometimes if we are honest that can be disengagement. Sometimes we feel so exhausted and defeated that we can’t be bothered.

When dealing with a bad behaviour incident (again) that can mean we just read the police report, or the report from the teacher who dealt with it, or listen in despair once again as school tells you as a parent that once again your child has got it wrong. And in our defeat or anger or frustration, or all of the above at the same time, we talk to our troubled teen. And I emphasise the ‘to’. There is no dialogue.

We just tell them how disappointed we are, how they’ve done it wrong. They roll their eyeballs. Look to the sky or the floor. We issue consequences. They kick off or don’t seem to care.

The end result


No dialogue. No understanding. We don’t understand their motivations. We pull our hair out despairing about how they just don’t seem to get it. But they also don’t understand us and why we just don’t get it. Two people meet and completely miss each other. At best no-one is changed by the interaction. At worst, we both leave the interaction more frustrated with one another, more angry, more despairing.

Even more dangerously, we might feel like we have done an excellent job. We have spoken to them, we haven’t avoided the issue, we have told them what’s what. We have told them where this behaviour will lead them, they are now fully informed. We even asked quite a few questions, bonus 10 points to us all!

So we think we have engaged. We think we’ve had a conversation. But really, truly, we haven’t. All that has occurred is we have spoken and they have stood or sat there. They may have issued lip service grunts or yes’s when we’ve asked them, ‘do you understand the seriousness of this situation?’ or ‘nos’ when we’ve asked, ‘do you think this behaviour is acceptable?’. But have we engaged with their thought processes? Have we engaged with their feelings? Have we caused them to reflect? Do we understand them more? Do they understand us more? In essence, have they truly interacted with us? Have we truly interacted with them? Most of the time, if we are honest, the answer is a resounding no.

And this is where good, well-intentioned questions that seek to encourage real dialogue, to foster understanding can help us to avoid falling into these ‘non-communication traps’.

So what are these good questions? What do they look like?


* They are open. They don’t have one word, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.

* They often begin with ‘what….?’ ‘What happened?’ ‘What was your involvement in this?’ ‘What were you thinking when you did this?

* ‘Why….?’ questions are used as followups. Once we’ve got past the ‘facts’ as perceived by the young person, we can try and find out why they did what they did. What was their motivation?

* Good questions are asked when we are in a calm emotional state. If some cooling-off time needs to occur before we discuss what has happened, we need to take it. No dialogue will occur if everyone’s still reeling. Our questions, even if valid, like the ‘what’ ones, e.g. ‘What were you thinking when you did this?’ are more likely to come out with the right tone and are more likely to cause reflection and provide an answer. If I ask that same question sarcastically and in a frustrated tone then it basically becomes a statement rather than a question. [sarcastically] For example, What were you thinking?’ It basically becomes the statement, ‘What an idiot you are. You unthinking stupid fool’. Would we respond well to that if that were us? Or would we be more likely to become defensive or disengaged?

So what’s the ‘magic’ in these sorts of questions?


They feel heard. We avoid the lecture, the one-sided communication. They can see, at some level, that we are interested in them, we want to know more. They feel more cared for.

They feel empowered. They feel like they matter. And when they feel like this, they are less likely to use blunt attention-seeking tools to show everyone how much they matter, when really inside they feel like nobodys. Finally they are getting a genuine sense of mattering. They finally feel like somebody. Somebody worthy of being seen. Somebody worthy of listening to.

With questions, dialogue becomes a possibility. And even if they don’t answer our questions at first, they will at least know that we are interested to know what they have to say. Then next time they are more likely to give an answer. Dialogue then becomes a reality.

With questions, we understand them better. We get an insight into their thought processes, their motivations, what they struggle with. And when we know what their struggles are….

We can target our help for them better. We then become more interesting and relevant, less clueless in their eyes, more useful. Because when we listen to them more, they listen to us more too. It’s the golden rule of listening reciprocity.

With questions, assumptions don’t get a look in. If we ask open-ended questions that seek to understand, then we stop issuing statements that may not actually pertain to the facts of a situation, or the young person’s perception of a situation, which is what we are working with. So often teens’ frustration with our cluelessness is because we are clueless. We have no clue what is going on in their heads and what may have happened in a given situation, yet we dive right in there and tell them what they should and shouldn’t be doing and how we feel about it. We assume so much, and so much of what we assume can be wrong. Questions allow us to listen first rather than talk first, and by so doing, to question our own assumptions.

If we ask questions, we don’t judge unfairly. Questions seek clarification. And even if our increased understanding about a situation does ultimately lead to a judgement regarding the rights and wrongs of a situation and a necessary consequence, it will be an informed one. If our teens have had a chance to voice their version (even if it is total BS) then they will always take the judgement better than if we just carry on regardless. Our fair approach will impact them on some level and they will be more likely to respond to us fairly in the future. Do as you would be done by.

With questions they are more likely to own their problems. If we ask questions that seek to really understand the motivations and thinking going on in our teens’ heads, we get them thinking about their thought processes and actions. As soon as we do this, they begin to see their role in situations. So often young people will look to someone or something else to blame for why a situation has turned out the way it has. Yes, there will often be some outside elements at play, but by asking the right questions, we encourage them to take responsibility for their role in it.

With questions they are more likely to own the solutions to their problems. If we’ve questioned what their thought processes and actions were in the problem then we can ask what they want to change if anything, what they want to happen now and what they want their role to be in that, and what they might want our support to be, if any. So instead of us fixing a problem all by ourselves with a lecture and a consequence that will probably not change any behaviour, we invite them to tailor a solution for themselves. In my experience, these are the solutions and the changes that stick.

With questions, we are more likely to own our potential role in the problem. We can get it wrong, and sometimes very very wrong. By asking the questions and having the genuine conversation, the real dialogue, our role and other previously unseen people’s role in a situation or problem are uncovered. Instead of conducting our one-sided conversations in a darkened cupboard, we can conduct them in a flood-lit field. We can then make any necessary changes to our thought processes and behaviours that will help our relationships and interactions improve.

So the next time you are trying to have a conversation with a teen, knock yourself out asking lots and lots of quality well-intentioned questions. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

For some, this works really well, really quickly. For some there may be an adjustment period as they get used to you asking questions, they might find it irritating at first, they may well ask, ‘why are you asking me so many questions all of a sudden? (and that’s the polite version).

So just tell them straight, ‘I just want to understand what’s going on more, because I care what’s going on for you’. They might then tell you how annoying you are, ignore you, be quiet as they process this unexpected bombshell, any number of things. But I promise you, this new way of interacting will change things if you stick at it, if you genuinely try to understand them and if you genuinely resist the urge to lecture and give them the time and space to answer your questions. It’s because they will go away knowing something new about you- that you acknowledge you don’t know what’s going in their heads and you care enough to try and find out- that the game changes. In that moment you will both have really seen each other and been seen, maybe for the first time.

Want to find out more about how to reach troubled teens with real practical advice and strategies like what you’ve just read? Find it all in my latest book, ‘What I Need From You: the essential guide to reaching troubled teens’. It’s the book I wish I’d been able to read when I started out working with troubled teens. For more info click here.

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