8 Things You Should Never, Ever Say To A Teenager

These phrases may seem harmless, but you could be doing some damage. Here's what to say instead.
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If you have teens in the house, engaging them in conversation can be a real challenge. First, there are those ever-present headphones. Are they on? Are they off? Do your words reach them as the wah-wah trombone sounds of the Charlie Brown teacher? Are you just silently, futilely flapping your lips?

As for a response, if you get one, it’s likely to be an eye roll, an unintelligible grunt or a sharp takedown. I find that whenever I try to bring up the topic of feelings, I’m quickly accused of sounding “like a therapist” or being “so cringe.”

If you (and your bruised ego) can survive these initial obstacles, however, the rewards of talking to your teen are well worth the struggle. You’ll get to know what’s on their mind and how they’re experiencing the world while strengthening the connection between the two of you.

But to keep the conversation going and improve the odds that they’ll want to talk to you in the future, there are some pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. HuffPost asked a number of professionals who work with families and children what things you shouldn’t say to a teen.

“It’s not that big of a deal.”

Something that seems minor to you may feel significant to your teen. This phrase can “trivialise what a teen feels,” parenting coach Traci Baxley told HuffPost.

It might “make them feel misunderstood or dismissed, potentially leading them to believe that their feelings are overblown or unwelcome,” she continued. It may also discourage a teen from coming to you in the future.

As an alternative, Baxley suggested, you could say: “I can see this is really important to you. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”

“Why can’t you be more like [sibling/friend]?”

These kinds of comparisons are hurtful at any age. Society will bombard your child with messages that they aren’t good enough as they are, that they need to buy certain products to help them become a better version of themselves, clinical psychologist Nanika Coor told HuffPost. “It’s that much more damaging to a 16-year-old’s developing self-worth when those sentiments are coming from your own parents.”

Coor suggested that instead of focusing on how your child measures up, “appreciate their individuality and accept their unique developmental trajectory.”

If there is something that they’re struggling with and want to do better, Baxley said, a different way to approach it could be asking: “Let’s talk about your goals and what you’re working towards. How do you feel about your progress in [area]? What are some things you’d like to improve, and how can I help you achieve these?”

“You should ______.”

“Never open a discussion with advice,” Frank Anderson, psychiatrist and author of the memoir To Be Loved, told HuffPost.

First, he said, “it’s important for them to first feel heard, seen and validated.” Anderson advised “starting a conversation by listening and being curious about their experience.”

It’s important not to assume that you understand them, so check in by asking “Here is what I’m hearing you say, is that correct?” Once they’re confident that you’ve truly heard what they have to say, “then you can ask them if they’re interested in your view or opinion,” Anderson said. Some parents ask directly, “Do you want my advice? Or do you just want to vent?”

You may also find that if you keep asking questions (“What do you think you should do?” “How could you respond?”) kids will talk their own way through to a solution or next step. Sometimes you can be most helpful as a sounding board.

“Enjoy life now, before you have adult responsibilities or real problems.”

We need to try to imagine what things look like from our teen’s perspective, not our adult one. “Statements that ask them to suspend the present in essence by focusing on the future land as quite minimising to their life and reality,” Silvia Kaminsky, therapist and board president of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, told HuffPost.

Saying things like this “can also lead to hopelessness because if they are having such a hard go at it now, how much worse will it be when life gets harder, or entails more responsibilities?” Kaminsky added.

“You’re so irresponsible — what’s wrong with you?”

Not only is this phrase hurtful and likely to rouse your child’s defences, “it doesn’t offer any information about the impact of their actions or alternatives for what they could’ve done instead,” Coor said.

Avoiding these harsh criticisms doesn’t mean that you “let them get away with it,” however. You can talk about your feelings and propose that you try to come up with a solution together. Coor offered the following example: “I’m really frustrated with what’s happened here. Let’s talk about how we can handle this situation together.”

“At this rate, you’ll never amount to anything!”

Your intention may be to motivate your child, but “this is a hurtful attack on your teen’s self-esteem that can fuel insecurity and anxiety — ultimately discouraging them from pursuing their goals,” Coor said. Instead, take a moment to set aside your own frustration and offer words of support. Coor suggested saying: “I believe in you. I know you can figure this out.”

Approaching conversations sensitively with your teen can help them open up to you more.
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Approaching conversations sensitively with your teen can help them open up to you more.

“It doesn’t matter what other people think of you.”

Although you may believe this to be true, you also know that your teen cares a lot about their peers’ approval. They “have not had time to develop skills to counter the feelings associated with their peers’ opinions,” Vanessa Bradden, a licensed therapist in Chicago, told HuffPost.

If a friend or classmate has said something upsetting about them, try to say something that both validates their hurt and offers reassurance by highlighting another perspective of what happened. Bradden offered this example: “I am sorry to hear that. Being 16 can be tricky; sometimes, people say things they don’t mean because they are having a hard time or having a bad day. It is OK to feel bad and remember that you are more than someone else’s bad day.”

“That happened to me too when I was your age.”

It’s tempting to jump right in and relay a similar experience that you may have had, proving the validity of your empathy, but this kind of a response isn’t always what kids need. “Relating it to yourself has the effect of making it about you,” Kaminsky said.

Your teen may not feel heard, or that you’re not recognising they are different from you and their experience is unique. Instead of hijacking the conversation with your own narrative, try to use your experiences to guide the questions that you ask. “Remember how you felt in that similar circumstance and ask them if that’s how they are feeling,” Kaminsky suggested.

“If I would have said that to my parent, they would have ______.”

It’s impossible sometimes not to compare your teen’s experiences to your own, but it’s not always a good idea to share these thoughts with your child. “It can make teens feel that their own experiences and feelings are being judged against outdated standards,” Baxley said.

Also, if you’re talking about the ways that you were punished, kids might hear “an implied threat or warning of harsh consequences, which might instil fear or anxiety rather than understanding or respect.”

That doesn’t mean you don’t address it when your child says something unacceptable, however. Baxley suggested turning to the following phrases instead: “In our family, one of our core values is respecting each other even when we disagree. Let’s figure out how we can discuss this in a way that works for both of us,” “When you say things like that, it makes me feel [insert emotion]. Can we talk about what led to that comment?”

“You’re fine.”

While perhaps true in the long run, your child is not feeling fine at the moment, and saying otherwise minimises their experience. It can be difficult for teens to cope with their big feelings.

Ellen Galinsky, author of parenting guide “The Breakthrough Years,” told HuffPost that it may be helpful for parents to see their teens’ emotions as a necessary part of their growth rather than a problem to be avoided: “Adolescents are primed to be like emotional detectors. As they move out into the world, they are primed to react strongly to experiences so they can learn when they are safe or not, belong or not, can be themselves or not. I think of these big feelings as developmentally necessary.”

Instead of dismissing them, you might say, “It looks like you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?”

“You’re so smart.”

This can seem counterintuitive. Don’t we want kids to know we think they’re smart? The trouble is, “when kids are told how smart and capable they are, it creates pressure or a standard that they constantly need to strive for — or constantly fall short of,” Anderson said.

Instead, compliment how hard they worked on something or how they were able to overcome challenges. Saying something like, ”‘I know you as a hard worker, and no matter how challenging things become, when you keep working through tough moments, things tend to work out for the better’ ... is ultimately a healthier message, and more attainable,” Anderson said.

Other Expert-Backed Advice For Talking To Your Teen

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Give them their space, and respect when they say they’re not ready to talk

When Baxley posed the question to her own teens, they said that they dislike it when, early in the morning or right after school or practice, their parents bombard them with countless questions. They also find it frustrating when they’ve indicated they don’t feel like talking, yet their parents persist or respond with anger.

If your teen doesn’t feel like talking to you, you could say something like, “I understand you might need some quiet time right now; I sometimes feel that way, too. Let’s both take some time and talk later,” Baxley said.

Admit your mistakes

You may say some of the phrases above, or make other missteps. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed. But it does give you an opportunity to strengthen your relationship through repair.

“Don’t be afraid to mess up and make mistakes in talking to your youth, they love it when parents can admit they got it wrong, and course-correct — gives them hope for themselves!” Kaminsky said.

Try using ‘a part of me’ language

Anderson suggested that parents say things such as, “A part of me is hurt/sad/frustrated by what I’m hearing from you right now.” This phrasing “helps kids understand that they are not ‘all bad’ or it is not all their fault,” Anderson said. It also “implies that we feel other things about them too, such as love, admiration, and trust.”

Validate their feelings while reassuring them that they won’t last forever

One of the researchers that Galinsky interviewed, University of California, Los Angeles psychologist Jennifer Silvers, told her: “My mother told me something to the effect of, ‘Right now this feels like everything, but someday you’ll look back and it will seem like just one experience of many.’” Galinsky said this response avoids being confrontational or dismissive, accepts the teen’s feelings and offers “a tool for reframing an overwhelming moment.”