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The Flip Side

Talking to Teens: Keeping the Lines of Communication Open

Educational planning requires honest, constructive conversation. Yet the topic can be fraught with tension even when parents and students have a positive relationship. Parents often feel the weight of major life decisions differently than teens. Plus, it is natural for parents to develop a set of hopes for a child’s future while coaching him or her toward adulthood. Meanwhile, adolescents are busy inventing and advocating for dreams of their own.

As educational advisors, we often facilitate discussion between parents and teens, helping each to clarify educational goals and priorities. As in any topic, the most essential part of a productive dialogue is finding out what is actually going on in a child’s life. This is made more difficult because some communication challenges are inherent in being an adolescent. Many teens, for example, are not forthright in articulating their thoughts and feelings. They tend to compartmentalize issues as a natural part of the developmental process of asserting autonomy. In some cases, they are also facing challenges that they do not yet have the life experience to fully interpret. Understanding this situation allows us to trust that children are giving their best effort to communicate—rather than engaging in a willful power struggle.

Parents can set the stage for a productive heart-to-heart with teens by planning for substantive conversations to occur in a neutral space. Teens particularly object to the feeling of being judged, and they often read the judgments they are expecting from parents through subtle cues of body language. The effects of body language can be moderated if a conversation occurs on a walk, while driving, or during some other activity. Relocating to a coffee shop, rather than the kitchen table where the child was previously scolded for playing with food, can also shift the tone of discussion. Parents can also open the door for discussion by letting go of long-held intentions for a child’s future because teens open up when they feel that their ideas are being heard and valued.

Clear communication is as important for families taking traditional paths to boarding schools as it is for families facing struggles. As educational consultants, we are neutral parties, with specialized expertise in the myriad of opportunities available. It is fulfilling to lead a process that brings families closer together while helping teens mature and identify goals that are meaningful and relevant for their lives.

Jeremy McGeorge specializes in serving families whose children need therapeutic services as part of their educational plan. He can be reached at