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Improving Communication With Your Teen: Move from Fighting to Understanding

Does this scenario sound familiar? You attempt to have a conversation with your teen and it quickly turns into an unpleasant situation? Your teen starts to shut down, or maybe they start yelling and spewing insults. Do you feel defeated and helpless when your teen makes statements like “you don’t understand me, you just don’t get it, I hate my life”?

Often times teens experience very distressing emotions that they may not understand or know exactly how to process. The intensity of their challenging emotions can turn them into someone that you don’t recognize. Their actions and words are hurtful and confusing which can cause you to react irrationally. So what can you do in this situation to help your teen regulate all the emotions that are swirling around?

Ways to help regulate emotions:

  • Grounding
  • Learning to take a breath
  • Visualization
  • Physical Activity
  • Trigger and Emotional Identification

Grounding: what is it and how do you do it

Grounding increases focus, helping your teen be more and stay connected to the present.  It is a technique that can be used anywhere and by anybody. One type of grounding exercise is to use the 4 senses to help bring your teen back to the present and calm down.

For example, teach your teen to stop and identify the following 4 senses:

  1. “I smell a candle burning”
  2. “I hear the air conditioner blowing”
  3. “I feel my feet pushing into the floor”
  4. “I see the numbers on the clock”

It can be hard for your teen to remember this skill so an image that they can use to guide them through the exercise can be helpful. This image can be hung in an easily accessible spot in your home or written down on an index card that you both can access.

Learning to take a breath:

At some point in your life, you have probably heard “stop and take a breath” but if you do not know how to properly breathe then it will be an ineffective exercise in calming down. Why is breathing correctly so essential? The inhale and exhale cycle of your breathing can be powerful in calming intense emotions and physical arousal (ex. shaking, crying, heart racing). Taking a deep and mindful breath can send messages to your brain and body to relax, slow down and quiet the storm inside you.

When one breathes deeply to regulate emotions it is important to follow these simple steps:

  • breathe and exhale slowly and deeply through the nose
  • relax your ribcage and feel your breath come from your belly

The ability to take deep and slow breaths from the belly is a great way to calm anxiety, fear, and anger.


Close your eyes, focus on your favorite place, person or thing that makes you feel happy. Examples include the beach, a quiet space, your favorite person, the sunshine and the warmth it brings. This technique can provide a break from the “conversation” and allows you and your teen to take some space and refocus the mind on something pleasant and positive.

Physical Activity:

Getting physical in a positive way that channels challenging emotions into an outlet that is safe. This doesn’t mean that you need to stop mid “conversation” and do an exercise video! Even though if that works for you do it! Simple physical exertion provides the redirection that your teen may need.

Things you can try:

  • place your hands on the wall and push into the wall
  • place your palms together and push
  • do a plank
  • strike a yoga pose

Trigger and Emotional Identification:

Being able to identify what emotions you are feeling is key to effective communication! Often times anger is the “go to” emotion because vulnerable emotions can be too scary to talk about or for some teens, these feelings can be hard to identify. Teaching your teen to recognize exactly what emotions they are feeling at that time can be a huge step towards turning your conflict with your teen into a  conversation. Along with emotion identification is the ability to know what situations, words or body language can act as “triggers” for you and your teen. For example, there may be a phrase or statement that you typically use when you are frustrated that will immediately put your teen on the defense. Similarly, there may be a certain type of body language or words that your teen uses that “pushes your buttons” and causes you to react quickly. The best plan is to communicate with each other your “triggers” when you are both calm and in a good space (not in the middle of a conflict).

All of this may sound overwhelming. Something to consider is that your teen’s brain is still developing and therefore has not fully reached the ability to have “emotional intelligence” which is the ability to manage emotions, recognize them and know how to appropriately respond to them.

So how do you teach your teen how to identify what emotion they are feeling when they are barely speaking or acknowledging you?

How to identify feelings:

  • Practice! It is not a skill that will be mastered after only one try.
  • Model how to identify emotions: “right now I am feeling frustrated because….”
  • Stop and ask questions such as: “how do you feel about that? What makes you feel fearful or anxious?”
  • Explain to your teen that having emotional intelligence can help them to express what they need/want and what they don’t need/want

Now that we have discussed the different ways to regulate emotions be patient with yourself and your teen. Change doesn’t happen overnight! Think of a habit that you have and how long it took to develop that habit along with how long it took to break that habit. This is what happens when humans learn the wrong way to identify and/or express emotions. We have formed a poor habit and need time to work to change them.

And lastly, there are no “wrong emotions” there are wrong ways to express those emotions. Allow your teen to feel the range of emotions as long as they are expressing them in a safe and healthy way.

by: Ruth Barron, MA, LPC

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10623 Jones Street Suite 301A
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(703) 267-5703

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