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Secret Life of Teens: 8 strategies to be the parent teens will actually talk to

No, you don't have to be the "cool mom." Here are some strategies for being the parent that teens will actually talk to.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

How can we be sanely involved in our teens’ lives? As a mom of teens and an educator who has worked with teens for over twenty years, it’s easy to say that it’s all about communication. But good communication with a teen is an art form requiring patience, humor, maturity, and a belief that it’s worth the effort to be in a relationship with a person who can and probably will push every button you have and not apologize until they’re 25. So here are some tips to keep you sane, your teen safe and your relationship with each other strong.

You don’t have to handle every situation perfectly. You can’t. You will have countless opportunities parenting a teen to teach your values. You will handle some of these moments well and some of these moments...not so much. So give yourself (and anyone else you’re parenting with) a break.

You don’t have to stalk your child’s every move online or in real life to parent a teen well. More important than any tracking device you install on their phone (and they can leave that phone at a friend’s house and go wherever they want and borrow their friend’s phone for any communication), is having a relationship where they believe you’re a source of comfort, you recognize that they’re growing up, they know what you stand for, and you will hold them accountable if they go against your values.

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teens segment
Teens often dread conversations with their parents about drugs, alcohol, sex, friends, academics, etc. because they assume they’ll be trapped listening to you for hours. Key advice: Keep it shortNBC News

1. Recognize that teens’ lives are complicated

No they don’t have to pay bills, but usually teens are dealing with a lot. Many teens are confronting situations involving drugs, alcohol, mental health issues, or violence in the family. Even if they aren’t directly involved, it could be happening to friends they care about.

2. Teens aren’t going to "get it" overnight

Remember, it takes time for any of us to develop good decision-making skills. From having a friend who is a bad influence to realizing it’s not good to procrastinate on a school assignment until the night before it’s due — teens have to go through these experiences before they’re able to turn that into better decision-making.

Read more on parenting teens from TODAY Parents

3. Listen, don’t lecture

Listening should mean being ready to be changed by what you hear. Of course that doesn’t mean teens automatically get whatever they want, but it does mean parents should listen and respect what is important to them. By all means, disagree with them but don’t talk down to them. Avoid coming across as if you’re judging them, their decision-making ability, or their choice in friends.

4. Keep it short

Teens often dread conversations with their parents about drugs, alcohol, sex, friends, academics, etc., because they assume they’ll be trapped listening to you for hours. You’re way better off telling your child, “I want to talk to you about X but this should only take a few minutes. Here’s what I think about it. What do you think?” Wrap up any conversation like this by asking them what they think they heard from you. So their response should be something like this, “OK, you think it’s important that I tell you the truth about where I am so we have mutual trust. Can I go now?” I know that doesn’t sound like an awesome response, but this can be the reality of parenting a teen.

Read more in the TODAY Parenting Team: To love and protect a child in a digital world

5. Keep it to three

When you want to discuss the dreaded topics I listed in No. 4, keep it to three concepts. Pick three things that you want to get across, no matter what happens in the conversation. If you hear yourself repeating any of the three items, it’s time to stop talking.

6. Don’t be peer pressured

When they say, All the other parents... let their children have co-ed sleepovers, let teens go to parties without parental supervision, buy their children new cell phones no matter how times they get lost or broken, you can say: "Well, you chose the wrong parents. And just so we can confirm how insane I am, why don’t you give me the names and numbers of five parents I can talk to so they can tell me how different my rules are than theirs."

Read more: What parents wish they'd known before their kids started high school

7. Share the truth, not the gory details

If you have a history of alcohol or drug abuse in your family and it’s not already clear to your teen, appropriately share your family history. That means avoid the horror story about the time Uncle Mark got so drunk he fell over the table. However, you can say, “We have a history of alcoholism/drug abuse in our family so you may be more vulnerable to developing an addiction. As you get older, I won’t be there with you all the time and you’re going to have to make your own decisions. It’s up to you to take responsibility for yourself and I’m always here to talk these things through with you."

8. What if you used when you were a teen?

Don’t lie or tell them it’s none of their business. Instead, prepare what you want to say by answering the following questions: What life lessons did you learn about yourself and others when you used? How did using affect your friendships?

Parents might ask: But if they can see I’m OK now and I tell them I drank or did drugs, doesn’t that send the message that drugs and drinking are OK?

Your children are smart. So you can say, “Yes, I drank when I was in high school but this is what I learned about myself (or my friends) from those experiences... For example, I learned that friends can’t be relied on when they’re drunk.” Or, “Sometimes people use alcohol as an excuse for their behavior and expect you to accept what they’re doing no matter what."

All in all, remember, it’s not going to be easy and you’re probably not going to get a lot of thank-yous in the immediate future. But giving them that balance of respect and comfort goes such a long way in building a great relationship with teens, so they’ll come to you when they really need your guidance.

Rosalind Wiseman is a teacher, thought leader and bestselling author of "Queen Bees & Wannabees," the book that inspired the hit movie "Mean Girls," as well as "Owning Up: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice," a new curriculum for middle and high school students. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter at @cultureodignity.