In several recent blogs I reference experts encouraging parents to keep the channels of communication open with their teens. From dads staying close to their daughters, to maintaining healthy parental dialogue around social media use, a positive outcome involves parents who can sit down with their teens and have a constructive conversation, whatever the issue.

A regular reader picked up on the recurring theme of the need for ‘healthy dialogue’ and commented, ‘yeah, but how do parents maintain these healthy conversations with their kids in this technological, over-sexualised age’? It’s a good question; it’s challenging to guide our kids on issues we didn’t experienced as adolescents, or the 21st Century expression of a familiar issue.

We could just accept that the generation gap has become a chasm and avoid the hard conversations altogether. That approach didn’t sit well with me, and I suspect that because you’re reading this, it doesn’t sit well with you either. So, I began searching, to learn from those who research and work with today’s teens.

I recently bought the newly released, They’ll Be Okay – 15 Conversations to help your child through troubled times by Collett Smart. Smart is a psychologist, teacher, lecturer, writer and regularly appears on national television and radio speaking about teen and family issues.

The book is structured around 15 important conversations to have with our kids. Most chapters have a ‘Try This’ section with a bunch of practical ideas to implement, including a list of questions and conversation starters. A few lessons that stood out for me from They’ll Be Okay:

Choose your response

Smart says that the way we react when our teens share can influence whether the doors of communication remain open. For example, she says that children often don’t tell adults when they’ve seen pornography or other inappropriate content online because they fear having their technology confiscated.

Similarly, when it comes to risky behaviour, Smart says, ‘I want to know that my teen will choose to call me first, rather than someone else’s mum or even end up in hospital because their fear of my reaction was greater than their knowledge of my unconditional love’.   

Do’s vs Don’ts

Too often our conversations focus on what not to do – don’t bully, don’t look at porn, avoid sexting etc. but seldom do parents have a conversation about what healthy relationships look like.

A Canadian study showed that almost half of teenagers still consider their parents to be their role models for sexuality and how to do relationships well. ‘We spend so much time worrying about how to have ‘the sex talk’ that we don’t realise that ‘the love talk’ might be the more important conversation to have with young people’, says Smart.  When we don’t talk to them about what romance looks like, how to have positive relationships, what it means to be a caring respectful sexual partner, they turn to their peers who are just as confused as they are and are getting their information from the same broken online sources that they are.

Updating our view (the Internet changed everything)

One of the reasons that parents avoid the hard conversations with their teens is that they recognise that they don’t fully understand the issue, or at least the 21st Century perspective of an age-old issue.

For example, Professor Jennifer Johnson, Ph.D. (Department of Sociology, Virginia Commonwealth University) reflected in a 2015 interview that one of the reasons that adults can be reluctant to have a conversation with their kids around issues like pornography, is that the parents developed their sexual identities prior to the introduction of the internet and therefore don’t fully understand the new, online world.

Their recollection of porn is magazines hidden under the bed with photos of semi-clad swimsuit models, which is worlds away from the often violent, degrading and humiliating treatment of women, available 24/7 from any internet-connected device.

It’s never been easier to access articles, books, up-to-date research on the issues facing today’s teens; so, do whatever it takes to equip yourself to have at least a broad understanding of an issue as you begin a conversation.

Invest the time

‘Research shows that there are positive associations for teens who spend an average of six hours a week engaged in family time with their parents. The more time teens spend in family time – such as during meals, having a parent watching them play sport, driving to guitar lessons, attending Grandma’s birthday, popping up to the shop together, on holidays, chatting after a party –the less likely they are to abuse drugs and alcohol and engage in other risky or illegal behaviour’.

If you like your parental advice to be a mix of practical, lived experience backed up by research from numerous credible sources, then I think you’ll enjoy They’ll Be Okay. I’ve read a number of parenting books, but this one has equipped me to bring up some of those difficult conversations with our kids.

If you have teens or kids approaching their teens, I think you’ll find this is one of the most practical resources you could put in your parenting toolbox.