To communicate with teens parents need to listen and empathize


Q. I can’t get my teenage son or daughter to really talk to me about their lives. I want to help them. What can I do to encourage communication?

A. You are not alone. It is often difficult for parents and teens to communicate effectively. Many of us have forgotten the angst of our teen years, and we unintentionally invalidate our children’s feelings or attempt to solve their problems when we should be listening and empathizing.

When you observe your teens in distress, like most parents, you are eager to help them resolve emotional pain. If you can get them to talk, avoid using statements that disparage their feelings. Remove from your vocabulary phrases such as “you’ll get over it,” “don’t be so sensitive,” or “I don’t know why something like this would upset you.” Most teens are very emotional. Give them room and permission to have those emotions.

When they do talk, teenagers often just need to vent. While it is natural for parents to want to help with their problems or fix situations, avoid doing that. Try simply listening, not offering an opinion unless asked, and empathizing with them.

Avoid asking your teens questions that are too broad. When they come home from a night out, don’t ask, “How was your night?” Most young people will say “fine” and head toward their room or the refrigerator. Instead try asking, “What did you think about the movie?” or “What did you have for dinner?” These questions often start a conversation.

For more ideas on increasing communications with your teens, I highly recommend Teenage as a Second Language by Barbara Greenberg and Jennifer Powell-Lunder.

Q. I think my 16-year-old daughter is sexually active, but I’m uncertain. I don’t want to encourage her, but I don’t want her to be unprotected?

A. Once a young person reaches a certain age, parents are no longer the decision maker about sexual activity regardless of how much control one attempts to assert or how strong a parent’s personal beliefs. The best one can hope for is that young adults will be ready in all emotional and practical aspects when they decide to become sexually active.

Since you suspect that your daughter is having sex, you should have an honest conversation with her to be certain that she is knowledgeable about protection and the risks of unsafe sex. Hopefully, you had that conversation long ago. If not, it is now time.

Your daughter and all teenagers should be informed about the dangers of unprotected sex. Every year about 25 percent of sexually active teens contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD). According to the Center for Disease Control, 38.9 percent of teens did not use a condom during their last encounter. Many teens believe that if they use a condom it means they planned to have sex. In their minds, unplanned sex is somehow less “wrong” than if the sexual encounter was planned. At that point, they are not worried about diseases.

One of the most devastating risks of unprotected sex for teens is the danger of being infected with the AIDS virus. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2009, over 20 percent of people diagnosed with AIDS were 13 to 24. The rate of teens infected with AIDS has increased over 50 percent since the late 1980’s. One of the reasons for this increase is that many teens still have the belief that AIDS is only a homosexual disease and cannot be contracted through heterosexual contact.

Assure your daughter that she has many years to be sexually active. The teen years are not a time one should have to worry about protection, pregnancy, or diseases.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice for several years. If you have questions, e-mail them to drnryburn@gmail.com. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.