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Talking to a Difficult Teen

You might feel like you’re tried everything to reach your teen. Or maybe you’ve gotten so frustrated you’ve given up, figured you’d wait until the hormones settle.

These are key years, and you want to do what you can to influence their course. I say “influence” because the truth is, you can’t control. But you can help.

Here are some ideas of where to start.1) Think about why your teen might be difficult to connect with.

Is he or she under extreme stress and pressure at school and socially? Have a hard time with any type of authority? Lack confidence and self-esteem?

Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Attempt to see the world through his or her eyes. That might be hard to do if you have limited information because your teen doesn’t talk to you. But think of what you do know.

Empathy is a leap of imagination. Take that leap, and do it compassionately.

The more compassion you feel for your child, the lower your frustration, irritability, and anger will be. And that’s important for your approach.

Which brings us to…

2) Consider your approach.

Do an honest self-evaluation here. It might be easier to say that your teen is simply difficult, rather than facing your own responsibility in the dynamic.

But think of it this way: If you’re part of the problem, then you can be part of the solution. If the answer is, simply, that your teen is insurmountably difficult, there’s nothing you can do about that but wait and hope.

So feel empowered when you ask yourself the following questions, because the answers could make a big difference in your relationship:

When you approach your teen, do you do it in a way that could be construed as attacking, condescending, and/or defensive?

Are you more interested in talking than listening? Are you trying to simply impart information, to tell your child how to see things, rather than learn how your teen is making sense of their world?

Are your emotions getting in the way of your listening skills? Those could be anxiety, anger, frustration, disappointment, fear…you name it, you may be feeling it, and your teen might be feeling it, too, which could be off-putting.

3) Anticipate and manage your emotions before you start the conversation.

That doesn’t mean you have to be an automaton. Far from it. It might even be useful to acknowledge the feelings to your teen: “This is hard for me because I get really worried when we talk about x, y, or z. But I really want to be able to know more about you, and what’s going on in your life.”

What you don’t want to do is let your feelings drive the car. You need to be able to recognize their potential impact, and have a plan for how to manage what will likely surface during the conversation.

4) Own your part in the dynamic.

A conversation is a give-and-take. Even if your child is surly from the get-go, you have the power to try something new. If you’re always doing the same thing and expecting different results…well, you know what that’s the definition of, right?

Be cognizant of what you’re bringing, and open to change. Sometimes we talk to our teens, hoping they’re the only ones who are going to do any changing, and once they feel that, they close off. They shut down. They feel judged. They feel you’re trying to control them. And you know what? They may just be right.

So examine your own motivations, and be as self-aware as you can be. That’s the thing that has the greatest potential to turn your relationship with your child around.


Photo of angry teen from shutterstock.
Talking to a Difficult Teen

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2016). Talking to a Difficult Teen. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Mar 2016
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