How to have a conversation with your tech-obsessed teen

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Talking to teenagers has never been easy. The generation gap seems so wide that it’s near impossible to bridge, so parents are on the lookout for tips on how to do it.

The problem is that things change so quickly, tips that worked a few years ago may be obsolete, especially in this era of tech-obsession. Although teens are communicating differently today, that doesn’t mean they need their parents less.

In fact, with cyber-bullying, social media, and the changing face of communication, today’s teens might need their parents more than ever. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 1 in 5 teens aged 13 to 18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness.

But how do you know if your teen is being withdrawn because they’re a teenager or because of something more? Either way, talking to your teen is just as important in the tech age as it ever was. The challenge is getting them to open up when they barely break eye contact with their screens. All is not lost—teenagers can and do talk to their parents, but just not in the way you’re used to.

Here are some dos and don’ts for having a conversation with your tech-obsessed teen.

DO text them.

Texting has evolved significantly in the past several years; it’s now a standard mode of communication among teens. If you’ve ever been in a room of teens texting each other instead of talking, you’ll know what we mean. It makes sense, then, that many teenagers find it easier to express themselves by texting rather than talking.

Texting is akin to meeting your teen in their comfort zone, where you can take time to put your thoughts into words, deleting and rewriting before hitting ‘send.’ Ignore the grammar, abbreviations, and lack of punctuation that comes with a text and focus on the message. Texting can provide the opening your teen needs to connect and converse.

DON’T insist that they put down their device and talk to you.

When all you see is your teen focused on a screen, it’s understandable to want to insist that they put that thing down and have a real conversation. But for teenagers, their phone does facilitate conversations (see: texting). Pushing them to stop can backfire, as your teen feels misunderstood.  

Meet your teen halfway; of course it’s reasonable to impose limits on technology use, but parents of techy teens are in new territory. These devices aren’t going away, so adults and teens will have to compromise when it comes to methods of communication.

DO set limits.

Part of that compromise is setting ground rules for technology. That might be establishing a no-technology zone, such as the dinner table. It might mean limiting daily screen time, though this can become difficult when screens are part of education. This establishes clear expectations and creates a space for face-to-face conversation to occur.

The most important part? Parents must lead by example. If they see you at the table checking emails on your phone, you’re giving them permission to do the same.

DON’T give up if you’re frustrated.

One thing that hasn’t changed: parenting is hard, and there’s no instruction manual. You’ve tried texting your teen, but they’re not responding. You’ve tried talking to them, but only get a sullen response.

Talking (or trying to talk) to a teenager can test your patience, and it’s tempting to throw your hands up and say ‘forget it.’ But giving up is counterproductive, as is pushing too hard. It can help your teen just to know that you’re there, even if they insist they don’t want to talk. Encourage them to text you if they’re feeling sad, or anytime they need to talk.

DO use media with them to encourage interpersonal engagement.

Technology and online media aren’t all bad. They can actually encourage engagement when you use devices together. We’re not suggesting that watching a YouTube video, creating digital art, or playing online Scrabble should replace physical activity, but they can become part of a shared experience.

You can also ask your teen for help with a tech issue, such as creating an online photo album or calendar. This gives your teen an opportunity to use their knowledge, which feels good.

DON’T get too serious, too fast.

Not all conversations have to be heavy. You may want to talk to your teen about school, their future, or what’s bothering them, and that’s fine. But if that’s all you ask about, your teen may start to associate conversations with interrogations.

Mix in light topics by asking about things like books, movies, or TV shows. Go beyond yes or no questions as these can be easy for a teen to deflect.

Teenagers can be a mystery. It may be tough to get a conversation started, but think outside the box and use technology to engage, rather than isolate. They may be hooked on devices, but they’re still a teen who needs their parents.

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