Taking Five – How to talk to teens and pre-teens

‘It’s not complicated, just hard,’ says youth advocate Charis Denison. Known for her talent for getting pre-teens and teens to talk, and for parents to ask the right questions and listen, she shares advice here:

1. Be around
Create a regular time that your child knows you, or the parent they are connecting with most at that time, will be around – for instance, in the kitchen every Tuesday and Thursday around 5pm. This allows your teen to casually bring up something they would like to talk to you about without it seeming a big deal. ‘It’s kind of like fly-fishing,’ says Denison.

2. Listen more, talk less
‘For every two minutes or three minutes your kid speaks, you speak for one, and then he or she will come back with another question. If you go on for five minutes, you’ve lost them for another couple of weeks.’

3. Train your child to say “Hold Up”
A good mantra for teens and pre-teens to deal with tricky situations in a party is Feel, Think, then Act. As Denison says, this mantra is particularly important for girls.
‘Girls at middle school are masters of doing what they know they will be rewarded for,’ says Denison. She says the best advice for girls who find themselves in a situation where they feel threatened or intimidated is to take a moment to reflect. ‘We need them to say ‘Hold Up, What’s Going on?’ she says. This can be tricky for the kind of girl who is normally completely assertive. ‘It’s not defending an argument, it’s defending your own heart and your mind.’

4. Reward children for being open
Create an environment where children will talk about a frustrating or tricky situation and how they handled it. At the dinner table, Denison says, parents can give children a chance to talk with an opener like: ‘Did anyone do anything that was uncomfortable today? or Did anyone do anything that was hard?’
When teens do share, she says, the best reaction is to not judge, but empathise with their frustration at the situation and talk about how they would handle if differently if the same situation happened again. Most importantly, says Denison, parents need to reward kids for their ability to talk about how they handled a situation. This should be the same whether that’s about someone who cut in front of them at lunch at school, or being offered alcohol at a party. ‘They really fall silent when it matters the most,’ she says.

5. Be clear
Denison’s advice for families is to have values, make sure your child or children know them, but be prepared to accept that the world is messy.
‘As parents, we need to keep saying our values,’ she says. ‘So say “It is really important for us to be honest with each other. We believe in standing up for yourself.”’
When it comes to drinking, drugs or sex, it makes sense to offer a get-out situation, she adds. ‘So you might say: “We do not condone drinking, we do not want you to drink. But if you were in a situation where you found yourself deciding to experiment, and you feel unsafe, we want you to call home, and there will be no conversation, at least that night, and we will pick you up.”’


Charis YP icon2Charis Denison is recognised for her work in human development, service learning and social justice. She is the founder of Prajna Consulting in Marin, California and presenter of the TEDx talk The Gift, ‘Flip Side’ of Teen Behavior.
This interview by Claire Comins was written in preparation for ‘Can We Talk?’ A Teen Discussion facilitated by Charis Denison is at Kent Middle School on Wednesday November 12th 2014.