One of the hardest conversations I had with my teenage son was about substance abuse — not about illegal drugs or binge drinking but about prescription drugs. Because they are "prescribed," they might be misinterpreted as safe to use. So it was hard to communicate how they can still be dangerous and addictive.


When the time came, I knew it would be one of the most important conversations we had. After all, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 18- to 25-year-olds have the highest rate of prescription drug abuse. Even scarier, prescription drugs are some of the most commonly misused substances by 12th graders.


I wanted to get the conversation just right. But let's face it. Teenage years aren't easy. Puberty, hormones, high school, finals, peer pressure — it's exhausting for both teens and parents, and effective communication amid it all is no small feat. I often compare the teen years to the terrible twos. It's an exciting new phase in your kids' lives peppered with constant urges to push boundaries. And when they're teenagers, it's especially hard to believe that what you say actually matters.


But it absolutely does — experts consistently reinforce that. The most important thing to remember is that your teens want to be heard, whether you're talking about substance abuse or summer plans. Giving them your undivided attention is critical. Listen attentively, and when it's your turn to talk, always tread carefully. Here's what I've learned:


1. Listen without judgment.

You might be tempted to interrupt them or judge their opinions, but don't. Allowing them to talk through their thoughts will make them more likely to open up and be honest than if you insist on what's right and wrong: "Period, end of discussion." (Although, admittedly, sometimes that's necessary, too).


Instead, look for opportunities to ask open-ended questions:


  • "Why do you feel that way?"
  • "What do you think would happen if…?"
  • "How does this affect…?"


Let them know you have confidence that they can find the solution and give them the space to do so.


2. Keep your emotions in check.

In many cases, the most important emotion you can show is empathy. There's no doubt that your teenagers can get under your skin and push your buttons, but resist the temptation to overreact. It's more important to be open and understanding so they feel like their side of the conversation is heard.


If you can show your kids that you're able to control your emotions, they might be more willing to talk honestly, and that's a huge hurdle to clear when it comes to effective conversations with budding teenagers. They'll be less likely to open up with you if they view you as too emotional.


3. Don't turn all communication into a formal sit-down.

The best opportunities to communicate with your teenagers are often the ones that randomly arise in your daily life, not the ones you plan and come to prepared with bullet points.


We often go hiking with our teenage son. He is a runner, so hiking is something he really enjoys, and it also gives us opportunities to talk. While these weren't necessarily the right moments for serious discussions on substance abuse, they were opportunities to set the stage for effective communication.


4. For delicate issues, don't just tell — show.

Communication is not all about talking. It helps to give your kids a visual of how something can affect their health, appearance, and quality of life. When we started to talk to our son about substance abuse, I knew it couldn't just be verbal. Showing pictures and looking at research helped. We also listened to TED Talks. This combination of media really helped at a time when I needed to reach my teen most.


We serve dinner monthly at a homeless shelter and are able to meet individuals and talk to them. While people are homeless for many reasons, one of those reasons is substance abuse. On our way home, we always reflect on our experience. This helps us give real-life context to an issue rather than just tell our son where certain roads can lead.


Through it all — even though you'll want to hug your teens and cuddle them like you did when they were cutting teeth — hitting the teenage freight train means hugging might not cut it. You'll have to navigate hard conversations, and you'll have to let them make mistakes.


Just remember, your teens are growing into wonderful adults. They might not be little kids anymore, but they need you just as much (if not more) than when they were toddlers. Take a deep breath, enjoy the ride, and don't underestimate the power of listening.

Author's Bio: 

Originally from Turkey, Zeynep Ilgaz and her husband, Serhat Pala, co-founded Confirm BioSciences and TestCountry, where Ilgaz serves as president and CEO. Confirm BioSciences is a national provider of diagnostic products for human wellness testing. Ilgaz received the Most Admired CEO Award in San Diego in 2016, and Confirm BioSciences was recognized as one of the Best Places to Work for five years in a row.