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The Words of Support Your Teen Needs From You — & Which You Should Skip

Knowing what to say to teens can feel like an absolute mystery sometimes, considering that some days, even a simple “good morning” can push them over the edge. If you feel like you’re often walking on eggshells with your teenager, let me reassure you that you are so not alone.

In my nearly 19 years of parenting, there have been many (many, many) situations where I didn’t know what to say. In those moments, the pressure to choose the right words can feel so immense. Am I reacting in a way that sends the message I want to send? Will I fail them, and they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives? When they’re teenagers, these moments feel even more critical somehow — like saying the wrong thing could send them spiraling down a path of self-destruction. I’m sure a big part of that fear is just my worry-prone mom brain in action, but our teens really do need our guidance a whole lot during these years, whether they wanna admit it or not. And I don’t know about you, but I’d love to feel more confident in giving it to them … so I set out to find some answers.

What To Say to Teens

“Teens, developmentally speaking, have a high need for independence and a lack of judgment, especially from their parents,” says clinical psychologist Hannah Yang, Psy.D., CEO and founder of Balanced Awakening. Dr. Yang tells SheKnows that teens need to figure things out for themselves and be allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from that “real life” experience: “That’s a framework to keep in mind when thinking about how to support your teen and what you might say.”

Clinical and educational psychologist Aura De Los Santos, specialist at E-HEALTH project, says, “Our teens need to hear direction, but not from an authoritarian position that creates fear.” Rather, De Los Santos tells SheKnows, teens need to feel understood, and our job is to guide them through their confusion. She suggests using phrases like, “‘You did it wrong, but you can learn from it,’ ‘We all make mistakes but it is important that you learn about the situation,’ ‘I understand how you feel, and I know it is not an easy situation,’ or ‘Even if you don’t want to talk now, I want you to know that I will be waiting for you to be ready.'”

Dr. Yang offers additional suggestions: “Some other things that might be good to say to a teen are, ‘What do you need from me right now?’ and ‘Would you like my help/thoughts/support right now?’ Asking questions like this is a way to let the teen know that you are there for them, but in a way that gives the power and autonomy to the teen to decide what and if they need their parents’ help.”

What Not To Say to Teens

“Because I’m the parent, that’s why.” Don’t get me wrong here — our kids should absolutely respect our parental decisions! But according to Dr. De Los Santos, using this particular phrase isn’t doing anybody any favors: “Here you are not giving them details, there is no assertive response to the situation, and there is no understanding of the teenager’s actions.” The ultimate goal, she says, is that they don’t do things just because an authority figure dictates it, but because they understand the importance of the advice and support their parents give. And they’ll never understand that our advice is important if they feel we’re not listening, and simply shutting them down with “because I said so.”

“It’s not that big of a deal.” While we might feel like saying this will make our teens realize they shouldn’t be so upset about something small, it actually sends the message that their parents don’t care that they’re upset. Dr. De Los Santos tells SheKnows that this comes across as a lack of empathy, which only serves to diminish how our kids feel instead of validating it. “This can make them feel bad and misunderstood and unwilling to share other things,” she says.

“You can’t do that, you don’t know anything about that.” Yes, teenagers do think they know everything, and it’s tempting to knock that know-it-all attitude down a few pegs — but Dr. De Los Santos says that even though they are more inexperienced than they think they are, we should watch our phrasing: “Saying it this way can affect teens’ self-esteem.”

“Why did you do that? What were you thinking?” Dr. Yang advises avoiding questions like these that can come off as accusatory or blaming/shaming. “Better to take a time out from your teen and not say anything until you can convey your concern or upset in a way that’s less ‘judgy,'” she says. “Doing so will help to preserve your relationship with the teen and help keep it feeling safe for them to come to you in the future when they need help, or just want to connect.”

How to Build Teens Up In the ‘In-Between’ Moments

Even when we’re not being confronted with a nerve-wracking parental situation involving our teenagers, they’re still listening to what we say in the day-to-day (believe it or not!) — especially when we’re bolstering their confidence about decisions they’ve made or things they’re doing.

Dr. Yang reminds us to keep our eyes on the positives. “It’s easy as a parent of teens to focus on any ‘problem’ behaviors you might be seeing. But if you can instead focus on anything — or lots of things — that the teen is doing well with, that makes a huge positive impact on the teen’s development and your relationship with them,” she says. “Even saying things like ‘I noticed you kept your cool when you didn’t get your preferred part in the musical,’ or, ‘The C you got on that math test shows you’ve been working hard to learn the material!’ The more we can turn our attention to what we’re liking and appreciating about our teen, the more likely they are to feel supported and want to open up and share more of their world with us.”

Additionally, Dr. Yang recommends trying as best we can (though it’s definitely hard!) to keep our judgments, and our own biases, in check. “The more a parent can get ahold of their own ‘stuff’ or anxiety around what their teens behavior brings up for them, the better,” she says. “The more nonjudgmental and open of an approach a parent can take, and genuinely mean it, the better.”

De Los Santos recommends honing in on four key points when it comes to developing and maintaining a positive relationship with our teens.

Establishing effective communication. “That is, communication where parents listen to their children, validate their emotions, and validate them in a way where they learn from their experiences,” she says.

Strengthening their self-esteem. De Los Santos reiterates the importance of focusing more on the good than on the bad: “Parents should highlight positive aspects of their children and motivate them to be better every day.” Also, she says, we should let them see that it is normal to have weaknesses and reassure them that as they grow, they’ll be able to turn those into strengths.

Creating an environment of trust. The more comfortable our teens feel expressing their fears, concerns, beliefs, and values, says De Los Santos, the more likely they’ll be to come to us about issues they’re having — and trust our advice.

Spending quality time with them. Finally, she advises hanging out with your kids as much as possible (we’ve got some expert advice on doing that, too!) — it’s so important for their mental health, she says.

And when it comes to convincing them to spend quality time — which can be tricky — Dr. Yang has further advice. “With teens, I think it’s always great to sit back and observe,” she says. “Give them space, but approach them with curiosity when you notice they are passionate about or engaged with something. Ask them a question about what interests them about what you see them engaging in. Ask them about how they feel about a certain situation.”

No matter how much expert advice we get on what to say to teens, there are still going to be those times when even the most innocuous comment will garner an irritated response (or at the very least, an epic eye roll). And there are no guarantees we’ll never say anything wrong, because parenting teenagers is a near-constant string of scenarios we’re just not sure how to handle. But with these guidelines to follow, we can at least be a little more assured that we’re on the right track — and, just maybe, convince our kids that we know what we’re talking about after all.

These celebrity parents are sharing the struggle — and sweetness — of raising teenagers.

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