Ways to engage your teen on heart and hard matters

Good communication is vital during conflict. When we asked 5,000 adults what they wished their parents had done differently during times of conflict, they gave these three responses most often:

  • They wished their parents had listened more.
  • They wished they could have talked about feelings more.
  • They wished they had talked to their parents more.

Listening and speaking with your heart

Here’s one particularly nasty myth that keeps many people from experiencing the benefits of effective communication: They believe that real communication occurs when they understand the other person’s words and equate effective communication with accurately parroting back the words and phrases they hear.

Good communication is so much more than that. True communication does not occur until each party understands the feelings behind the spoken words. People generally feel more understood, cared for, and connected when the communication first focuses on their emotions and feelings rather than merely on their words or thoughts.

Suppose your teen says, “I hate my school. Everyone ignores me and I want to quit school.”

Consider carefully her two sentences. If you reply, “So what you’re saying is that you don’t want to go to your school any longer and you’d rather stop school altogether,” you’ve completely missed the point.

But what if you listen for the emotions beneath the words by listening with your heart? Then, you might respond with: “Are you saying that you feel ignored by the teachers and the other students, that you don’t matter?” This time, you’ve listened to what is beyond your daughter’s words to her heart, to her real concern. You’ve tapped into her emotional message — her fear of being ignored.

A lot of us struggle with this skill. We want to solve a problem and complete a task, not deal with emotions. We want to figure out how to “fix it”. Without listening for and responding to the emotions, however, all of the problem-solving in the world won’t get us to the real problem.

Tips on communicating with your teen

  • To be a true sounding board for your teen, listen objectively first, without getting emotional or showing a reaction. This will encourage them to share their deepest thoughts without the fear of upsetting you or being judged.
  • Resist the impulse to lecture your teen – no child responds well to a lengthy scolding by a parent. Your teen is likely to respond to your anger with their own hostility and irritation, and “shut down”. Try to engage your teen in a calm conversation, using concrete examples to help them fully grasp what you mean to say.
  • Be comfortable with hearing your child out – and then return to the issue later, once emotions have settled. This may take hours, or even days, for bigger issues. In the lull, take time to pray and commit the situation to God. This, in itself, will role model spiritual maturity for your teens, and encourage them to do the same in years to come.


Always ask yourself this first: “What is this person feeling?” When teens sense that you really want to understand them emotionally, they will be more likely to open up and share more of their concerns, and conflicts will be greatly reduced.


Adapted by Focus on the Family Singapore from The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships: Discover the Key to Your Teen’s Heart by Gary Smalley and Greg Smalley © 2005 Tyndale House Publishers Inc. Used with permission.

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