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Talking to Your Teen Girl

It's one of those golden moments. For some unknown reason, your daughter starts talking. Not only is she talking, she's sharing! Amazingly words, sentences, and paragraphs flow from her. Appreciate these moments and facilitate more of them by minding these tips:

1. DON'T interrupt. When she's feeling chatty, she enters a flow. If you interrupt with a question or comment, the moment could vanish as quickly as it appeared. You don't have to be mute. Just be mindful of creating a lot of open space for her to keep talking.

DO show you're attuned, with your engaged body language. Offer her your full attention.

DO throw in small questions that help her talk more about the topic. Most of her benefit comes from the actual talking (not hearing your thoughts), so help her vent her feelings by supporting her to talk more.

DO a quick scan of your muscle tension. If you're holding tension in your body, you're more likely to pounce into her conversation flow. If she's talking about something that provokes you, be especially vigilant to control your own emotions. Good listening correlates with a relaxed body, smooth breathing, and physical openness.

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2. DON'T look too interested. If you look too interested, you may trigger an intrusion response, and she may feel the need to pull back. You may want to break eye contact from time to time so as not to accidentally cross that invisible line from interest to intrusion. This can be confusing, because if you have two or more daughters, their invisible lines will have different locations. One daughter might share quite freely, while the other has an easily triggered intrusion alarm. Even more confusing, the same daughter may snap shut one day, while on another day, she will tolerate and indulge several of your questions.

DO keep an interested yet relaxed facial expression. The balance between being interested yet not intrusive can be a delicate one. If you are a busy parent with little time to talk with your teen, she is likely hungry for more connection. If you work a lot, have many demands on your time, or are naturally more emotionally private, you may need to ramp up your interest.

DO tread carefully and watch your daughter for signals as to how you're doing. Most teen girls have no problem letting you know when to back off.

NEXT: DON'T indulge in a teaching moment

3. DON'T indulge in a teaching moment. It's hard, but really—don't. People teach your daughter something every minute of the day. She's saturated! If she grumbles about something she feels stressed about, resist the impulse to problem-solve. Just nod empathically. Any unsolicited suggestion you give will likely annoy her.

DO express confidence in her ability to figure out whatever she needs: "I bet you'll handle this just right."

DO ask her gently if she'd like your perspective or ideas. (Think butterfly, not bulldog.) If she says no, let it go.

DO try to set up "learning moments." If your daughter plays volleyball, have her show you how to bump. If she loves art, ask her questions that allow her to expand your world of knowledge. If she's into anime, ask her to show you the characters and explain them to you. Becoming her student gives her a break from absorbing and an opportunity to bring you more fully into her world.

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4. DON'T involve her friends. When groups of girls collect at one house or in a carpool, the personal conversations run like rivers. Sometimes other girls will give you information about your daughter or involve you in the lively talk while your daughter winces uncomfortably. (It's a cruel yet ultimately fortunate reality that teen girls will often share intimate details with other moms once removed from their own mom.) It's tempting to be opportunistic and engage the friends for more than you would get from your daughter.

DO feel complimented by their demonstration of trust and ease if they share with each other when you're around.

DO maintain a respectful boundary instead of becoming "one of the girls."

DO resist this temptation, or your daughter will be mad at her friends—"I can't believe you let my mom know that about me!"—and you.

5. DON'T over-identify with her. If you've ever considered your daughter your "mini-me," ditch that thought forever. If you switch her focus to tell her how much she's like you, she may feel uncomfortable and back off her sharing. Teen girls are working on separating, and although parental intentions are well-meaning, it is developmentally appropriate for teens to squirm away from intimate identifications with parents.

DO keep a gentle focus on her. Listen to what she's saying and how she's feeling. Respect and remember that she is a completely separate person from you.

DO shift from listening with your head to listening with your heart.

DO remember COAL (curious, open, accepting and loving).

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6. DON'T show more emotion about what she's sharing than she does. If you get triggered into an intense reaction or express too much curiosity, fascination or concern, she will feel as if she's blown it by sharing and will shut down. Teen girls want to talk to adults but often resist because they don't want to worry them, feel judged or be sanctioned with their freedom.

DO let her know that you "feel" her and want to support her, even when the content of her conversation is troubling. Make sure her emotional experience is the centerpiece of the conversation.

DO let her know you will check in with her later: "Honey, I'm glad you shared this with me. We can let it settle and you can let me know what I can do to support you. We can generate some ideas together."

NEXT: DON'T discuss her personal info with others

7. DON'T discuss her personal information with other people. Even if you're sharing neutral things about her, many teen girls feel violated and ashamed when their parents talk about them with other adults. Now she feels more like an adult and has a need for privacy. She may feel outraged when she hears you sharing information about her with your sister or friend. Sadly, some girls don't give their parents a second chance after confidentiality has been breached.

DO visualize putting the information on a very high shelf that you can't access without a ladder.

8. DON'T minimize the importance of what she says, even if you think it's just drama. Instead of judging the content, note aspects of her sharing that seem important to her.

DO pay attention to the details and try to remember them. When the topic comes up again, your memory of the details translates to her as strong evidence of your love and her significance.

DO avoid pinning a "happy face" on what she's saying (for example, saying, "This too shall pass," "Everyone has felt this way" or "It could be worse"). She may feel insulted and trivialized. Instead say things like "Yeah, I get it" or "That must have felt really awkward."

DO try to use some of the same language she has used. For example, when she's describing something as awkward, use similar language and resist interjecting a word like "humiliating," which does not fit what she's trying to convey.

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9. DON'T jump on the bandwagon. If she's sharing an issue she's struggling with that concerns a relationship or some other challenge, resist the urge to also criticize or critique that person or situation: "Yeah, I always thought she was kind of flakey." When you jump on the bandwagon, she may backpedal or abandon her own exploration in order to manage your perception. She will worry that her venting may create a permanent judgment in your mind, which will adversely affect her. It feels less safe to explore what's difficult or painful when you jump in too.

DO concentrate on being present for her exploration. Try saying things like "What was that like for you?," "Sounds like a really hard situation" or "What do you hope will happen?" If the issue gets better for her, allow it to get better for you, too. Don't get stuck on the bandwagon she's long forgotten.

10. DON'T jump to conclusions or project negativity. Teens often complain that they try to share with their parents, but the conversation veers out of control. It starts under the control of the teen but ends in the control of the parent. One teen complains that if she tells her mom about a cute boy at school, her mom takes over the conversation with too many questions including questions about boy's character and substance use, which make the daughter feel offended and disrespected. The daughter responds to this by vowing to resist urges to share with her mom in the future. She feels hurt and angry that her mom gives her little credit for being a good decision maker.

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DO project optimism and confidence whenever possible. Even if your daughter seems to be confused or making poor choices, let her know you believe in her ability to find a solution or make things better.

Reprinted by New Harbinger, from Parenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication and Connection with Your Teen Daughter, by Lucie Hemmen, Ph.D.

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