"Keep open communication with teens" is standard advice, but it can be difficult to put in practice when even a simple query sets off accusations...

Share story

“Keep open communication with teens” is standard advice, but it can be difficult to put in practice when even a simple query sets off accusations of an inquisition.

Indeed, “ferreting useful information from an adolescent requires the cunning of a detective tempered with the sensibility of an artist,” note the authors of “7 Things Your Teenager Won’t Tell You: And How to Talk About Them Anyway.”

“7 Things” and another new book, “Breaking the Code: Two Teens Reveal the Secrets to Better Parent-Child Communication,” help parents avoid common missteps and trigger phrases.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Authors Jenifer Marshall Lippincott, a former teacher, and Robin Deutsch, a psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor, propose three “rules of play” that parents can clearly explain and enforce with teens: Stay safe, show respect and keep in touch. “Used effectively, these three strategies can spare a multitude of wasted words, arguments and bad feelings.”

For example, a teen must call home if plans change (stay in touch) and provide enough details (who he’s with, where they’ll be, whether a parent is present) to assure that he’s safe. Otherwise, the response is: “You know if you spring something like this without enough details, the answer is an automatic no. So it’s up to you to make it work.”

The readable, practical book is marred only by stilted sample parent-child dialogue.

Some of their tips:

Don’t lash back.
“Not wanting to be taken hostage by our own ‘Don’t you dare talk to me like that’ threats, we accept tongue-lashings as signs of their need to back out of a corner or retreat. Rather than increase the heat on such volatile moments, we seek to dispel them with cooler heads and the healing power of time and space.”

“7 Things Your Teenager Won’t Tell You: And How to Talk About Them Anyway”

Jenifer Marshall Lippincott and Robin Deutsch

Ballantine Books, $14.95

Ask “And what happens if you don’t (or do)?”
This forces teens to think through the consequences of their (in)actions. Another: “So what’s your plan?”

Expect the truth but be prepared not to get it.
Truth is “often as malleable as their Friday night plans. If a position, desire or demand is defensible, it must be true.” Listen for omissions and distortions, as well as lies.

Establish ground rules before
allowing teens to purchase items such as a car, cellphone or computer with their own money. Then if a responsibility (such as using said phone to stay in touch) is ignored, the phone can be confiscated for a set time.

Emphasize mutual responsibility.
For example: “We agreed you’d be home by 10 p.m.” instead of “I asked you to be home.”

Watch out for babbling.
Complicated plans, excessive chattiness and outrage are warning signs something’s up. “The higher the voltage, the greater the likelihood of a shortage of reasoning.”

“Breaking the Code: Two Teens Reveal the Secrets to Better Parent-Child Communication”

Lara Fox and Hilary Frankel

New American Library, $13.95

The hook here is the authors: two New York teenagers. The youthful perspective is both its strength and weakness. It’s insight into what teens think should happen, but it doesn’t necessarily jibe with what experts advise.

According to the authors, parents should stay out of kids’ stuff, avoid correcting them in front of friends and ask nicely when teens’ rooms need to be cleaned (it is their space after all).

Contrast that to “7 Things,” which notes “there is a difference between secrecy and privacy. … We can’t afford to let privacy be a cloak for danger.”

The book’s “adults just don’t get us” tone can be grating, as in this passage: “Like most parents, you probably think that if you just remember what it was like to be a teenager, and apply a firm hand to prevent your teen from making the same mistakes you did, everything will be OK,” they write. “Well, as usual, you’re wrong. Your heart’s in the right place, though, and as long as you hold on to that, there is still hope.”

But not too much, since “no matter what you do, your teenager is going to have a problem with it.”

On that encouraging note, here are some of their tips.

Don’t say “Everything you do is my business.”
“It makes teens feel like they have no space they can call their own,” the authors note. It makes it more likely teens will get that space by hiding or lying.

Use a heated fight to find the underlying problem.
An argument about homework may actually be about how a teen feels pressured to get into the “right” college. “The truth is, the first step with a teenager is getting them to blurt out their real issues. The only way you’ll find out a teenager’s true feelings about an issue is when they are upset about it.”

Avoid the “I’ve been there so I know better” card.
“Your teen will see this as ‘I’ve been there, so do what I did.’ ” Another no-no: “You’ll thank me later.” To teenage ears, “this sounds like, ‘I’m going to be condescending right now because I am right and you’re just a kid who isn’t mature enough to understand.’ ”

Be direct on important issues
such as drug and alcohol use. “All teens know that the best tactic when it comes to their parents is gaining sympathy. Although you may feel sympathetic, it’s best to hold the mushy stuff until they understand what is actually expected of them.”

Choose your real-life stories carefully.
A personal story — whether about you, a friend or relative — is great to illustrate a point. But don’t make one up; it has to be true. And keep it limited to a short-lived or one-time oops that shows you learned a lesson. “This way your teen knows that even if you do cut her slack for a first mistake, you’re not going to let it slide again.”

Accept that a teen is never going to say a parent is right
. Forget comments like, “Don’t you agree?” Even if teens do, they won’t admit it.

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com