11 expert-led tips on how to talk to a teenager (even when they don’t want to listen)

In one ear and out the other? You're not alone there...

Parents trying to talk to teenage girl
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It's completely normal to feel like conversations with your teenager are hitting a roadblock, especially if you’re trying to discuss something embarrassing or trying to set boundaries.

If you've found yourself searching for advice on getting your teen to listen to you, take heart - you're already a caring, conscientious parent just by making this effort. The teenage years can be a rollercoaster ride of discoveries, emotions and moves to independence. 

The key is to resist the urge to lecture or talk 'at' your teen, as this will make them defensive and even angry, especially if they haven’t had a good night’s sleep. Instead, focus on understanding and connecting with them, ask open-ended questions (we have toms great expert-led teen conversation starters to try) and avoid interrogating them with yes-or-no questions, which child psychologists warn can lead even the most well-behaved teens to feel trapped and start lying about who they’re dating or what they’re doing with their friends late at night.

With a bit of patience, an open mind, and these strategies, you can learn to communicate with your teenager from a place of mutual respect and avoid taking a teen-ternity to sort out deep-rooted problems. The goal is to make them feel heard and understood, not cornered into just telling you what you want to hear. Here are11 practical tips for getting teenagers to listen:

How to talk to a teenager when they don't want to listen

1. Pick your battles

And by this we mean, know what's worth talking about and what you can leave unsaid. Focus your efforts on issues that really matter, such as your child’s safety, school and exams, and the core values that you and your family hold dear. Preaching at them about whether they make their bed or how they dress isn’t anywhere near as important, so focus on just a few priorities where you really need them to hear you. 

This is the number one rule, and, as podcaster and therapist Renée Zavislak says, a survival strategy! Expecting a hormonal teen distracted with school, peers, technology and social media to listen every time you speak is unrealistic and, let’s face it, controlling. And trying to control every aspect of a teen's life is a recipe for conflict. 

"Any parent of a teen who attempts to address every snide remark or roll of the eyes is likely to find that anger dominates their relationship with their child," says Renée. Plus, teens repeat those behaviours that are reinforced, and any reaction, even an angry one, is likely to reinforce negative behaviour, making it more likely that it will happen again."

It’s also crucial to pick the right moment for the conversation. If your teen is tired, upset or angry, your advice and help will go in one ear and out the other. Make sure they’re well-rested, calm and present so that they can listen to what you have to say. 

Mum of two teenagers, Jenny, says she finds long car drives can be the perfect opportunity to have meaningful conversations. “When I’m driving with my son or daughter in the passenger seat alongside me, it just feels so much easier to open up to each other. I’m not sure whether it’s because we’re filling the time or because we’re both facing forward, but that’s when my kids tell me what’s on their minds.”

Son and mum having a chat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. Show them that you’re listening to them… by really listening to them 

How can you expect your teen to listen to you if you talk over or at them without putting in the effort to listen and understand what they’re telling you? Practise active listening by maintaining eye contact with them (though not too much, as that can feel challenging to a teen!), avoiding interruptions, and reflecting on what your teen has said with pauses in the conversation. 

Show them that you’re listening by occasionally reflecting back to them things they’ve said to check you’ve understood them. Use their language, not yours, to show them you’re really listening to their experience. 

"Almost every teen I have worked with complains that their parents 'don’t listen' - even when they are," says Renée. "We need to make sure we give our teens' (sometimes endless) rants our full attention. That means not listening while scrolling or working but making eye contact and reflecting back on what you hear. Where teens often complain that parents don’t listen, parents often complain that their teens don’t talk to them. If you want them to tell you, make sure you are acting like you want to hear it!!

3.  Be clear, fair and consistent 

When it comes to getting your teen to listen and follow important instructions, having clear rules and consistently enforcing them can go a long way. First up, establish fair and reasonable rules (with some input from your teen so they feel like their opinions have been taken into consideration) and enforce them consistently. By explaining your thought processes behind the rules, you show respect for your teen’s growing maturity and help them understand the rules are in place for their well-being and safety.

It’s essential to enforce these rules once you’ve set them and outlined any consequences resulting from breaking the rules. This helps your teen understand that listening to and following rules is an important core value in your family. If you don’t, they’ll start seeing them as irrelevant and stop listening. As you set new and different rules as your teenager matures, they’re likelier to listen and adhere to them as you’ve built up a mutual understanding and respect.

4.  Let them make some decisions themselves

As your teens get older, give them more independence to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes without saying, ‘I told you so.’ Involving them in a discussion about breaking the rules and the consequences will make them feel more respected. If they feel respected, they’re likely to respect you back and listen to you when you talk to them.

Rather than trying to control and dictate, switch to a guidance mindset. Offer advice, then allow your teen to take responsibility for their choices and deal with the outcomes. It’ll also help them build their sense of autonomy and problem-solving skills.

5.  Never forget to praise positive behaviour 

 If you thought praising positive behaviour was something you could stop doing when your child hit the teenage years, think again. Kids thrive on positive feedback at any age. Always acknowledge and praise your teen when they follow through on responsibilities without being asked. Instead of nitpicking about the little things they forget, try to highlight their strengths and achievements. A little dose of appreciation goes a very long way with teens.

"This is hard science," says Renée. "All animals, including humans, repeat only those behaviours that are reinforced. Make this your mantra: Catch Them Being Good. According to the Operant Conditioning principles developed by B.F. Skinner, the best way to stop a negative behaviour is to ignore it. This is a huge shift for parents and one that has the most positive impact. Rather than focusing on what you don’t want your teen to do or say, focus on what you do want."

6. Prime them

"Teenager's minds still transition slowly from one task to another," says Craig Kain, psychologist and psychotherapist. "Just think of how long it takes the typical teen to get out of bed in the morning. Giving teens some advanced notice, for example, 'Can we talk in a few minutes?' allows your teen to prepare to listen and can make them more attentive to what you have to say."

7. Remove distractions

Craig also suggests removing those things that tend to take over when you're trying to get through to your teen. "The teenage mind tends to orient itself to things that are interesting. For teens, much of what their parents have to say is boring compared to what their friends are messaging, TikTok is streaming, or the video game they're playing.

"If you want your teen to listen, you have to ask that distracting things be temporarily turned off or removed. It helps if you have talks with teens in spaces that are distraction-free to start with."

8.  Model the behaviour you expect from your teen 

Just like active listening and respecting your teen, it's important to model the values you want to instil in them. So be polite, keep your temper under control, admit your mistakes and apologise when you need to. This doesn’t make your teenager think you’re a walkover. Instead, they're much more likely to reflect your tone and behaviour back to you. But give it time, and don’t expect miracles overnight!

9.  Stay calm 

We've all been there – your teen starts raising their voice, getting louder and more defiant by the minute. You react by raising your own voice. Before you know it you’re both screaming at each other and making no headway.

Instead, hit the pause button to stay calm. Take a deep breath and remove yourself from the conversation if you need to. It won’t fix the problem at hand, but it will give you time to calm down and reflect on how that conversation went and how you can approach it differently next time. By keeping your emotions in check and responding with patience, even when tensions are running high, you're showing your teen that it's possible to keep their cool, even in difficult situations. You're also creating an environment where open and productive conversations can happen instead of screaming matches. Remember, respond, don't react.

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 10. Don’t judge them 

Even if you don’t mean to, it’s easy to let judgements slip out of your mouth. This will almost always backfire with teenagers, making them instantly defensive instead of receptive to what you say. Leave any preconceived notions at the door and approach your teen with empathy. You’ll find they’re far more likely to be honest with you and ready to listen.

11. Get support if you need it 

If you and your teen are struggling, it's okay to ask for help. A professional counsellor or parenting coach can provide objective support and techniques to help you communicate better.

Communicating with teenagers can try any parent's patience. But by combining firm boundaries with an authoritative yet understanding approach, you're more likely to get through to your teen. With time and consistency, you can improve how you both communicate and get those adolescent ears to listen.

Featured experts

Renée Zavislak
Renée Zavislak

Renée is an integrative therapist, which means that she draws from several different psychotherapy orientations. Her work is informed by psychodynamic, behaviouristic, humanistic, and systemic approaches. She formulates her approach to fit specific client needs.

Dr Craig Kain
Dr Craig Kain

Dr Craig Kain has been a therapist for over 35 years helping his clients see things new ways, and build fulfilling relationships with others and themselves. He has experience working with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other obstacles that prevent people from enjoying a full life. Over the years he's provided psychotherapy and counseling to adults and couples from a wide range of life-experiences. Dr. Kain has been selected five years in a row for the Best of Long Beach Awards for Psychologist as well as the 2023 Long Beach Business Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the Master's in Psychology Department faculty at Antioch University, Los Angeles as well as a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach.

If you struggle to connect with your teenager, here are 25 brilliant ways to open up a conversation with them, with plenty of advice from our experts. Plus, here are the five most important things you should talk to your teen about before they start dating, and what to do if your teenager is drawn to taking risks.


Joanne Lewsley is mum to a tween, and freelance copywriter and editor who creates parenting, health and lifestyle content for evidence-based websites, including BabyCentre, Live Science, Medical News Today and more.