Ask questions, then shut up and listen: Advice for parents of teens

‘Teenagers crave autonomy and to be respected – just like we all do’

It's the adults rather than the teenagers who need advice as a family navigates adolescence, according to Mark McDonnell, CEO of the Soar foundation.

From years of working with young people aged 13 to 18 years, through character development workshops aimed at empowering them to believe in themselves and to fulfil their potential, this is what he would like to say to parents:

A certain amount of stress is good for teenagers. We see parents circling around like water planes and dropping water on any stress that arises for their teenager. This doesn't help anybody as the parents are in a constant state of high-alert and pass that anxiousness onto their teens. Also, the teenagers themselves don't learn how to cope with difficulty (which is inevitable) if they don't understand what makes them stressed and how to solve problems.

Include the teenager in the solution. Teenagers crave autonomy and to be respected – just like we all do. So, include them in discussing stressful situations rather than shield or over-protect. Listen to the teenagers' source of stress – don't dismiss it but normalise the emotions they are feeling so they don't feel "wrong" or "broken". Then give them the space to overcome the difficulty themselves, with the solutions you have agreed upon.


Ask questions – then shut up and listen. As adults we want to fix everything. Sometimes teenagers just need to vent and be heard – without judgment. That's important, because if they feel judged when they are sharing and being vulnerable, they won't want to come and talk to you again.

Figure out your own stuff. As adults we can have strong reactions to what our teenagers may do or say. It's very important to catch yourself in that moment and ask yourself: "Why have I reacted so strongly to that?" You may find that your reaction is connected to your own fears, or values, or deep-rooted beliefs. Catching this early will allow you to be a bit more balanced and you won't scare off your teenager to the point where they don't want to discuss parts of their lives with you.

Go easy on each other. Everyone is affected by our current reality to some extent. We are all stressed or anxious, to varying degrees and over different things. I think it's important to provide relaxed environments, such as going for a walk or a drive (as shoulder to shoulder is often less intense than face to face) and start to share with each other. It works both ways – in order for your teenager to share, you will need to give a little of yourself too.

And three final "don'ts" for parents from child psychotherapist Colman Noctor:

Don't compare them to siblings. They absolutely hate that.

Don't say "you'll see I'm right" or "I told you so". That really doesn't help.

Don't nag. They may indeed be lazy, unmotivated, distracted but getting on their case has never worked. There is no evidence to suggest that the naggier you become, the more effective the change is. Yet it is the one thing we persist with.

– Advice for parents on speaking to young teenagers
13 things parents need to tell their 13-year-olds