3 Tips for Talking—and Listening—to Your Anxious Teen

Parent with white hair wearing plaid flannel shirt sits next to teenage son talking The teenage years are a time of gaining independence and self-discovery. Teenagers are searching for their place at home, at school, and in the world at large. They are learning about romantic and platonic relationships, about time management, and about who they want to be. With all this exploration and growth, parents may find it hard to communicate with teens about anything, let alone difficult subjects. So, what happens when your anxious teen needs support but won’t communicate with you?

We know we can’t force our teens to tell us what is wrong, even when we can clearly see they are struggling. They might complain of unexplained physical ailments, refuse to go to school, or have emotional meltdowns at the slightest bit of stress. Developmentally, it is normal for teens to want to fit in and avoid being different. This desire might prevent them from admitting when they are struggling inside.

Your own fears and anxieties can also become barriers to communication. If you are overly emotional or angry because your teen won’t talk to you, you run the risk of further alienating them.

After you’ve tried discussing, begging, demanding, and bargaining with your teen to get them to tell you what is wrong, you may feel at a loss. It is important to consider that your teen is growing up. They are no longer a young child with boo-boos you can fix with a kiss. They are also not yet an adult who is fully responsible for themselves and their actions. There is a balance of comfort, support, and action that you can strike to best communicate with your teen.

Here are three ways to talk to your teen so they will listen:

  1. Empathize: As much as your teen wants to be independent, they also want to be understood and validated. When your teen tells you something that seems ridiculous and illogical, take a deep breath. This is your chance to put yourself in their shoes and show that you get it. Use statements that show your teen that you really heard what they were saying by using the same language they used. Instead of giving advice, you can say, “It seems like you are really feeling left out” or “It sucks that you are going through this.”
  2. Relate: Your teen may be more likely to feel like you understand them if they know you experienced similar issues. Sharing your own struggles with insecurity and anxiety in high school (and even today) can make your teen feel that these feelings are normal. Teens often look at adults as people who could never understand. By relating, you humanize yourself and open the door for communication.
  3. Ask: If you know your teen is anxious, make sure to check in regularly about their symptoms. Keep the conversation open. If they tell you something alarming, keep your cool. Your emotional reactions might scare your teen or make them feel judged. The most important thing you can do when you are concerned is comfort your teen and let them know you will figure this out together.

If you still have difficulty communicating after trying these techniques, or if your teen’s anxiety seems unmanageable, it might be time to seek professional help. Search for a therapist in your area who specializes in treating anxiety and schedule an appointment.

Talk with your teen ahead of time about your concerns and how therapy may help them feel better. Assure them many teens work with therapists and it doesn’t mean they are “crazy.” Not only can therapy help your teen manage their emotions, it can also help bridge the communication gap.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Levana Slabodnick, LISW-S

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Emerson

    May 30th, 2017 at 10:48 AM

    I thought that my parents would freak out when I told them that I would like to go see a therapist but actually they were very supportive of the decision and even helped me find someone who could work with me on the things that I need.
    After a few months I think that they could really see that this was benefiting all of us and have encouraged me to keep going.

  • Easton

    May 30th, 2017 at 4:58 PM

    There are times though when I feel like my kids and I have nothing that holds us together other than the fact that they are my kids and I am their dad. I don’t like their music, I don’t understand the clothing choices and I certainly don’t get the long swoopy hair. They think that I am old and just being too strict and the way I view it is that I am only doing the things that any good father should do. Help with finding some common ground to stand on is always a priority but we just never quite seem to get there.

  • Liza

    May 31st, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    Talking to any teenager can be a tough thing especially when you have a further obstacle like the fact that they are anxious and probably very nervous about having to have any kind of adult conversation to begin with!

    So my advice to any adult is try your best to remember what it was like to be their age, how it felt to be having these grown up conversations and how uncomfortable that could have made you feel.
    ‘I think that a big thing is just to put yourself squarely in their shoes and try to feel the same things that they could be feeling. This alone could make you a little more sympathetic to their experience.

  • bailey love

    June 3rd, 2017 at 7:12 AM

    This is not rocket science people. Teenagers want to be listened to and heard just like any other older person out there. To me it has nothing to do with being worried or anxious or sick or scared. It is just about being a willing listener and hearing what they actually have to say. I think that there are too many parents who stop listening to their teens and want them to instead only listen to them. But teenagers also have important things to say and they would love just being able to sit down and share those things with you without fear of judgement.

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