1. Ask, don’t judge
Start by assuming that they had a good reason for doing what they did. Show them that you respect their intelligence, and are curious about the choices they’ve made. If you don’t pre-judge their behaviour as ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’, they’re more likely to open up and explain why their actions made sense to them.
"Ask them if they will help you figure out their choice so you can understand the person," advises Camila Batmanghelidjh, from Kids Company, a charity which counsels troubled teens.
Parentline Plus advises keeping an open mind and listening to the young person's point of view.
2. Ask, don’t assume or accuse
Don’t assume that you know what’s wrong. Rather than asking, "Are you being bullied?" Parentline Plus suggests trying, "I’ve been worried about you. You don’t seem your usual self, and I wondered what's going on with you at the moment? Is there anything I can help with?".
3. Be clear you want to help
"If you suspect your child is using drugs or drinking excessively, be gentle but direct," says drug and alcohol charity DrugScope. "Ask them, and let them know that you'll help them through any of their difficulties."
4. Be honest yourself
Teenagers will criticise you if you don’t follow your own advice. If you drink alcohol yourself, they're likely to mention it ("You can’t talk!"). It’s important to be honest about your own habits. "If you drink alcohol, be prepared to acknowledge that with your teenager," advises DrugScope. You can discuss both positive and negative aspects of alcohol use, but make sure you're acting responsibly yourself."
5. Help them think for themselves
Teenagers hate being lectured or bombarded with solutions. Instead of trying to be the expert on their lives, try to help them think for themselves so that they can make good decisions. Try the following ideas:
- Discuss the potential implications of, for example, teen sex or smoking dope. For example, "How does smoking dope make you feel the next day? So, if you feel like that, how's that going to affect you in school/playing football?".
- Help them think critically about what they see and hear. "So Paul said X: is that what you think?" "So Sara thinks Y; how about you? Do you feel the same?" "Matt says X is perfectly safe, but what evidence is there that he’s right?".
- Make them feel that they can deal with life's challenges. Remind them of what they’re good at, and what you like about them. This will give them confidence in other areas of their lives. Information is also empowering: point the person towards websites that can give them information on drugs, sex and smoking so they can read the facts and make up their own minds (see below).
- Help them think of ways that they can respond and cope. "So, when you feel like that, is there anything you can do to make yourself feel better?". Or, "I don’t know whether this would work for you, but I read one girl saying when she got the urge to cut herself she tried X and that helped her stop doing it."
- Encourage them to think through the pros and cons of their behaviour.
6. Don’t criticise everything
If they only ever hear nagging from you they'll stop listening. Overlooking minor issues, such as the clothes they wear, may mean you’re still talking to each other when you want to negotiate (or stand firm) with them on bigger issues, such as drugs and sex.
7. If they get angry, try not to react
"Teenagers often hit out at the people they most love and trust, not because they hate you, but because they feel confused," says Parentline Plus.
Don’t think that they mean the bad things they say ("I hate you!"). They may just feel confused, angry, upset, lost or hormonal, and they don’t know how to express it.
8. Make them feel safe
Teenagers often worry that telling an adult will just make things worse. You need to be clear that you want to help them and won’t do anything they don’t want you to. This may be particularly important with bullying.
"Once your child opens up to you, explain that bullying isn’t acceptable. Listen to their fears, and reassure them it’s not their fault. Help to build up their confidence by reassuring them that you'll face the problem together," says Parentline.
9. Avoid asking questions they won’t answer
"Sometimes you’ll find out more about your teenager if you ask open questions, says eating disorders association, B-eat. If they have an eating disorder, for example, asking confrontational questions such as, "What did you eat for lunch?’ or ‘Have you made yourself sick?’ may mean they ignore you or give you a dishonest answer.
"Sticking to open questions such as, ‘How are you?’ or ‘How has your day been?’ helps your teenager talk to you about how they're feeling."