Every parent I’ve met has felt frustrated by repeatedly stumbling into difficult conversations with their teenage children. Those conversations seem to come out of nowhere, pack lots of energy, and leave everyone bruised and tiptoeing around each other . . . until the next one.
I suspect hard conversations would take place even if we removed sin from the equation. By definition, teenagers are transitioning out of childhood. They’re figuring out who they are, who they want to be, and how to handle greater independence and responsibility, all while still living in your home. You’re both trying to redefine a relationship that should (rightly) no longer be what it was when they were younger. There’s simply no way you both can navigate this process without at least some bumps and mutual learning along the way.
While there’s no surefire way to guarantee easier, better conversations with your child, there are some things you can do to help them see you as more of an ally than a threat during these defining years.
1. Not everything that goes through your mind should come out of your mouth.
Think before you speak. Proverbs has a lot to say about the words we choose, but it comes down to the wise person being careful with what they say, whereas the fool blurts out whatever comes to mind (Prov. 12:23). If what you’re thinking really does need to be said, you can always bring it up later. If it’s foolish, though, you can’t get it back after it’s left your mouth.
2. Don’t interrupt or talk over your child.
Don’t talk over them any more than you want them to interrupt and talk over you. It’s the law of love: Do to them conversationally as you would have them do to you (Matt. 7:12). Somehow, it’s easy to overlook Christ’s command when speaking to our children—to interact with them in ways we wouldn’t dream of with someone we just met. Imagine your child as someone you respect; then talk to them accordingly.
3. Call yourself out when you’ve disrespected them.
Your children already know when you are disrespectful, so let them know that you’re also aware—and that you’re not okay with what you’ve done. It’s normal Christian life to confess our sins to each other (James 5:16), so I’ve found it helpful to say out loud to my kids, “I’m yelling,” or “I’m interrupting,” or “I’m being condescending.”
How will they know what a good apology sounds like if they haven’t heard many from you?
You then need to apologize to them like you’d want them to apologize to you. When you do, you’re not only living faithfully before Christ, you’re also helping them learn what to do when they say something wrong. How else will they know what a good apology sounds like if they haven’t heard many from you?
4. Don’t tolerate nastiness from them.
Don’t disallow nastiness simply because it’s unpleasant for you, but because it’s not good for them to treat an image-bearer of God that way. This is hard to do well. You must identify their attitude and insist it’s not okay to talk to you like that—all the while not reacting out of hurt or anger.
How do you do all of that at the same time? Keep your focus on the danger they’ve put themselves in with God by dishonoring their parent, and on how they’ll benefit by hearing what you have to say. Making yourself think about what’s best for your child will help you speak into these situations without supercharging them emotionally.
5. Let them know they can disagree with you without jeopardizing your relationship.
You don’t agree 100 percent of the time with any of your friends, so why would you expect to always agree with your kids? I’m challenged by the words of Paul in Philippians 3:15: “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”
You don’t agree 100 percent of the time with any of your friends, so why would you expect to always agree with your kids?
Paul isn’t arguing that issues of morality are up for grabs; he’s acknowledging that not every disagreement is a hill on which to die. True believers may have honest differences that God works out over time. If that’s true in God’s family, affirm to your children that it can happen in yours as well.
6. Use your words to build a positive relational context.
Hard conversations create hurt and distrust, and cause people to walk away brooding over the ugliness of what just occurred. And these sour meditations inform what your child will say later, breeding additional hurtful interactions.
Part of breaking this cycle involves creating a different environment, which starts with a different kind of meditation. That’s why Paul urges us to think actively about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Difficult as it may be, that’s what must dominate our minds as we think about and talk with our children.
So look for opportunities to say positive things to your child—tell them something you like about them, ways you see them maturing, what they’ve done well. Tell them you love them, again and again. Resolve to be more interested in them than you are irritated by them.
You Are Responsible for You
You’re not responsible for your child’s heart or for how their mouth expresses it to you. You are responsible, however, for your own heart and its expressions.
Thankfully, Jesus, the very Word of God, died to give you a new heart (Jer. 31:31–34), one that longs to speak to your child in ways that reflect how your heavenly Father speaks to you.
William P. Smith (PhD, Rutgers University; MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor, author, and retreat speaker who has served several churches, been a faculty member of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, and taught practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Parenting with Words of Grace (Crossway). You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or get his podcast.