Interview by Dolores Radding
Scott Gee, MD, knows that the teenage years can be some of the toughest times for parents. Dr. Gee has worked with The Permanente Medical Group for more than 25 years as a pediatrician in the East Bay. He also serves as the Director for Prevention and Health Information at Kaiser Permanente Regional Offices in Oakland. He and his wife raised a son and a daughter who are now young adults.
Dr. Gee is the featured guest of the Sept. 5 Health Talks Online webinar titled, “Talking to Teens about Tough Topics.” Tune in at 12:30 p.m., to hear more from Dr. Gee. Sign up for this free webinar, which is open to the public.
Why can it be difficult to talk with your teen?
There are some normal characteristics of teenagers that can make it challenging. They sometimes argue for the sake of arguing, they tend to jump to conclusions, they can be self-centered, they often find fault in the adult position, and they tend to be overly dramatic.
There are a few important things going on. Adolescents are finding their self-identity, and in order to achieve that they’re seeking independence and separation from their parents—which is normal. And teens often seek more connection with their peers than with their own family.
The challenge is they sometimes don’t want to talk to you, because they’re trying to find themselves, and they’re relying more on what their peers say, and learning through peer relationships.
What are some keys to communicating with them?
If you can get them used to communicating with you on a daily basis early on, that will carry you through the more challenging years in adolescence. Regular daily communication is key, and really trying to convince them that they can bring up any topic—that there’s nothing off limits.
It’s also important to be a good listener and to not overreact. It’s difficult not to jump in when your teen is saying something you disagree with, but sometimes it’s best not to express your opinion. Instead of saying, ‘Why did you do that?’ or reprimanding them, acknowledge that it was a tough situation. Then ask them how they might have handled it another way so it could’ve turned out differently.
If you want to give your opinion, ask them if they’re interested in how you might have handled the situation. Most of the time, they’re going to say yes. Ideally, you want your teen to come to you. If you tell them what to do, they normally will resist that. It’s better for them to come up with solutions on their own.
Any tips for taking on tough topics?
Start with open-ended questions, and not accusations. If you need to talk about sex with your teen, you might ask them what they think about being sexually active as a young adult, rather than saying, ‘I know you might be sexually active.’ If they start on the defensive, it’s going to lead to a less productive discussion.
Ask them if they’ve thought about the pros and the cons, the benefits and the risks. Ask them about their feelings on the subject. After having this discussion, you can state your opinion, and why you believe what you do. They’re going to want to know why, and you should be very clear in the why.
For example, I believe drug use is a very dangerous thing for teens because it can lead to car accidents, certain kinds of infections, difficulty in school, and depression. Just saying ‘Don’t do drugs,’ isn’t enough.
What if you teen is embarrassed, or refuses to talk about a topic?
You can acknowledge their feelings first. ‘I can see this is a sensitive subject for you to talk about,’ and then you can say, ‘but I do think we need to discuss this, so when you’re ready to have that discussion, I’m here to listen.’ That gives them time to think about what they want to say, and to come to you when they’re ready.
Most of the time, they will come to you. But if a week or two goes by, check back in. Give them the opportunity to think about it more, and give them some control over when the discussion will take place.
You can’t make teens talk if they don’t want to talk, and that can be very frustrating. Inevitably they will talk. The goal is to maintain a relationship of trust.
You and your wife raised two children, who are now adults. Any advice from your own experience?
Raising teens is probably one of the most challenging parts of being a parent, and it’s hard for most parents. It’s emotional, and there’s yelling and screaming sometimes.
Don’t stop talking to your teen just because they don’t want to talk to you. There are certain times when they’re a captive audience: in the car, at meal times, when they’re not doing anything else. Use those times every day to get some conversation going.
If you don’t have regular conversations, it’s harder to have tough conversations. Ask your teen about their friends, their music, what they had for lunch. Show them that you’re interested in their lives and what they’re doing.