Talking to Teens: After Eight Teens, My Five Tips

We recently celebrated another Hoopes becoming a teenager. Eight down, one to go. But having raised eight teenagers hasn’t made me an expert. What it has done is make me realize how inadequate I am — and how God can be counted on to work with whatever a parent gives him.

It does mean that I have a checklist of best practices, though. Here it is.

First: Inform your teens of the facts of life.

I learned this the hard way — one of my older sons gives a talk about how to deal with the fact that dads are really bad about talking about sexuality to their sons. Now he is organizing discussion sessions with his younger brothers about the facts of life.

That’s a huge blessing for me. But it doesn’t let me off the hook. I still need to have the conversation — here’s a great guide for that. I also have to bring up hard topics: the truths about pornography and masturbation, as well as homosexuality, transgenderism and, wow, everything. These conversations are best had in times and places where your son or daughter can focus, but not be put on the spot: Long car rides, long dish-washing sessions, cleaning the garage, hiking, etc.

“Set aside for just you two as a time to talk about life — not necessarily a deep topic,” says my son who talks to college students about this. “Give them time and a place to come to you with questions. Teens have questions, and if they don’t feel like they can ask the parent they will learn from their peers on the Internet. Knowing their dad talks about deep things and isn’t afraid of it is tremendous.”

Second: Tell them what they can control and what they can’t.

One thing that was very freeing for me to learn about was a friend’s method of telling teens ahead of time that their hormonal changes will affect them in dramatic ways, but that they don’t have to give in. In your teen years, the hormonal changes inside your body will often make you want to be sullen, angry, and stand-offish. But that doesn’t mean you have to be that way.

Another very freeing thing is to tell them they can choose their actions, but they can’t change habits overnight, and they can’t choose the thoughts that will come into their heads. As I’ve said before, bad thoughts are like obscene phone calls. Tell your teens that their bodies will cause them to think thoughts they never thought before, but these thoughts don’t define them. If they have a hard time controlling impure thoughts, join the club. And if they have acted impurely because of those thoughts, that doesn’t define them either.

God is head over heels in love with them, because he sees who they really are, and he can and will restore their innocence in Confession. He asks for sincere effort, not perfect performance.

Third: Stand firm. They will thank you later! (Well, probably).

I have always been uncomfortable with confrontation and I can tend to be a bit of a pushover with my children. But on certain things I have stood firm, and I have especially been willing to follow my wife’s wisdom and stand firm on sensible rules: I have said no to evening and weekend plans, movies, electronic devices, etc.

And I have always been glad I did, and as angry as it made certain children in the moment, I cherish the times they came to me later on to thank me.

Fourth: Don’t be upset when they won’t talk, but be ready when they will.

As I said above, you need to inform your children of things, even if they don’t want to talk about them. In fact, many teens will seem like they don’t want to talk about anything. But you will find magical moments when teens do want to talk, maybe once in a blue moon.

These discussions will happen late at night, right before your bedtime — or, just as likely, when you happen to be up past your bedtime. The rule for you is this: When this happens, you don’t get to sleep, no matter what you have on your schedule the next day. This is a rare opportunity, and it is not to be missed for anything. Stay up. Talk.

Fifth: Pray with them.

We do a nightly Rosary with our teens, and we have required even reluctant and grumpy teens to join us. Even when the teen openly mocked the exercise. I also prepared a prayer book for my children and passed it out. One of my reluctant teens told me later that these prayers did a lot: It kept them grounded and in touch with God.

Good. He is ultimately the one who is in charge of your teen, and will be beside your child long after the memory of home life has faded. It is imperative to keep that clear from the start.

He will do a lot better job than you can ever do.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.