Get Your Teens To Put Down Their Devices and Listen To You

(You Might Just Have To Communicate Differently and Get Serious About Your Limits)


Communication with teens is a challenge. When I asked parents, “What is one change you’d like to see at home?” a common answer was, “How do I get my teens to listen to me the first time I ask them for something or to get off their devices?”

There are two obstacles I hear in this scenario: One is a communication problem. The other is a self-control problem.


Communication with teens is everything.

Even small communication tweaks can positively impact relationships. A client I’ve been working with for a while shared that though we initially focused on ending the battles with her teens, her communication with her husband has also improved.


If your teens aren’t listening, you’re probably in a negative communication pattern that goes something like this:


You ask her to do something she never wants to do (homework, chores, getting off her phones). Even if you think you’re asking nicely, you’re probably feeling some degree of frustration or dread in anticipation of her response.


After multiple asks, you yell or flip out, which makes you feel terrible.  As one client put it “yelling is the only way they listen, but I hate it every time.”


If she enjoys getting the rise out of you, this presents an opportunity for a power struggle. Now you’re fighting (again) and the same ask goes unanswered.


The homework still has to be done. The chores still aren’t done. And tomorrow, it’ll still take 10 asks for a simple action.


The moral of the story: you and your teen don’t really hear each other anymore. She’s tuned you out.


If this sounds familiar, here’s the good news, (which won’t sound like it at first): There’s nothing you can do to make your teen listen to you. But if you’re willing to try something new, you won’t have to use force.

Before you change your approach, know how you feel about your teen.


In the scenario above, there’s clearly a pattern. I bet the parent in that example feels a mix of annoyance, frustration, disappointment, blame, overwhelm.


If you do only one thing after reading this post, it’s this: to become aware of how you feel about your teen’s ability to listen and put down their phones. If you are entering into a conversation that is an ask, and you are practiced in a negative emotion, it may help explain why you are getting so little cooperation. This makes sense: if you’ve ever been approached by someone who is super-charged and asking/telling you to do something, you may get defensive or retreat.


Also, have a hard time interpreting tone and they teens are sensitive to your tone of voice.


For me, once I discovered the power of my emotions on my relationships, things really started to change.


Communication with teens shuts down when they feel you trying to control them.


In addition to how you feel when you approach them, consider is this: Kids have very little control over their lives. If they aren’t listening, maybe they are resisting being controlled. 


If you’re response is, “My kid should listen because I’m the parent and he should respect me,” I understand and agree to an extent–if we lived a world where that was still the cultural norm.  But we don’t, and I don’t know that fear-based parenting is best practice for my goal of connection. Also, I guarantee you that proceeding with that mindset will just prolong the negative pattern you are already in.


Here’s an example that comes from another client to illustrate these two points: focusing on the feeling and a subtle, but powerful shift in control.


If he won’t do things he enjoys without a fight, how am I going to get him to do things he needs help with?


A client was in a pattern with her son. When she approached him, she felt some dread and prepared for a fight. The more she leaned on him to practice for an upcoming rehearsal, the more he resisted. Even though he wanted the part, the minute she asserted her control and reminded him to do it, the power struggle escalated.


She was frustrated–if he won’t do things he supposedly likes, imagine getting him to do things he struggles with?


Since she’s a client, I asked her to assess herself  for controon a scale of 1-10, with 1 being mellow and 10 being a control freak. She gave herself a 7 or 8.


Now I asked the same of her son. After a long silence, she said he’s about the same.


This means that two people which a similar desire to be in control over a task that ultimately can only be done by one of them.


Communication dead-end? Cue the threats


When I asked her to recreate what happens when things escalate, she said she makes threats that she doesn’t always follow through on. This time, she threatened not to take him to the rehearsal, but that wasn’t true. So she concluded that she’d take her son to the rehearsal. Either he’d either bomb it and feel disappointed, or ace it and get a part.

You know this, but I’ll remind you anyway: Unless you follow through on threats, kids ignore them.


So how can she make him listen?


In short, she can’t. So that’s what she started a conversation with: “I realize that I can’t make you practice.”


That’s huge. But how could she make it on his terms, so he was in control, and still get him to practice? She offered to be his audience and give him her undivided attention. We found two times in the days before the rehearsal that worked for her and offered them to him. From there, he had a choice of whether or not to take her up on it. Not surprisingly, he did.


From a kid’s perspective, there is very little on their terms. Adults control their worlds. But they have a secret weapon–ignoring you until you lose it, and then fighting about how you are being a control freak.  


Before you can take action steps to improve your communication with teens, reflect on these questions:


  • How do I feel about him/her in this moment?
  • Am I making assumptions? If so, how does that come out in my “ask”?
  • What are the things s/he has control over that I am still trying to control?
  • On a scale from 1-10, how controlling am I?
  • Am I willing to change how I communicate even if I ultimately believe that s/he should just behave differently?

In other words, does your communication have annoyance, frustration, and/or control? And if so, are you willing to do it differently?

Now, how can you start improving communication with teens so they actually listen to you?


The goal is to meet your teen with less charge, more neutrality. This may take some effort, especially if you’ve been in a bad pattern for a while. However, if you get  yourself in a state of cold cognition, which means your emotions are quiet and you’re not in the heat of the moment, you’ll be off to a great start. Of all the things I teach parents, this is the one that has the most immediate and transformative impact on their communication.

In this state, I would call a family meeting and put a time limit on it. I’d start a conversation in a state of cold cognition. Like the client I mentioned above, I would say something that acknowledges what is going on and the limits to your influence.


  • “I’ve noticed that we fight to get you to come to the dinner table.”
  • “I’ve noticed that I have to ask you multiple times to get off your device.”
  • “I realize that I can’t make you come and eat dinner.”
  • “I realize that I can’t make you get off your devices.”


From there, I’d offer something that communicates where you are at and also your desire for input:


  • “I love you too much to fight all the time. I’m interested in your thoughts about how we can get along better and still have dinner together.”
  • “I am working hard right now, and your help around the house would really help me out.”
  • “I realize we’re in a bad habit and I’d like to change it.”


And then, listen without an agenda. Chances are that if you are frustrated with your teen, she also has frustrations. Give her the space to be heard and see what happens. At the end of this brief meeting, you can come to a solution, or you can revisit the topic. The point of it is:


  • to communicate with your teen when you aren’t already annoyed with her. 
  • to express your desire for a new outcome.


Cold cognition is kind of like a secret weapon for getting teens to buy in, especially if they are used to a highly emotional version of you.

How do I apply this to my teen who won’t get off his devices?


Now to the second part of the question: my teen won’t get off his devices unless I scream at him.


Screens really are the issue of our time and they’re relatively new. So if you have bad screen habits, you’re certainly not alone. That doesn’t mean you can’t take action, and in some cases, it may mean taking drastic action. (More on that in a minute.)


However, I find in my coaching practice that many parents are bothered by screens, but they struggle to stick to their limits.


Back to our family meeting: if you are in a bad habit about screens, own it. If you find it hard to set limits for yourself, own that too. Share the behaviors you’d like to see: phones off during meal times and at bed time without yelling or fighting.


You can invite your teen to share her perspective about to change the ritual of extricating her from her phone, but if you’ve been in rut for a while, she may just grunt in reply or call you a control freak.


And then, offer choice: she can either try to manage this on her own for the next week, or you’re going to  install one of these apps on all of your phones so you don’t have to rely on their self-control.


The minute you bring up an app, you’ll have her attention. Prepare for a reaction that’ll include lots of begging/telling you how much you suck or that you’re unfair. You’ve been warned.


I got this idea from a client who has worked hard with her son to set screen boundaries, but he is addicted to gaming. Though he says he understands the risks associated with excessive gaming, he still has no self-control in the moment.


If you are like many, many parents and didn’t set limits for screens and now it’s turned your household into a war zone, use the app. I don’t buy into the fear that if you set the limits for your kids now, you’ll always have to. Trust that as they mature and your relationship strengthens,  the ultimate goal of self control will come. And if that means externalizing control right now to an app, go for it.

All this is a detailed process for an outcome that  many parents want desperately: They want to be heard and listened to without fighting, especially when it comes to their screens. Unfortunately, this is part of a larger communication fail where the teen feels like the only way to have control in the situation is to ignore her parent and watch her lose it.  


Furthermore, the screen thing is an issue for all of us. I recently installed limits on my own phone because I need external regulation. Not because there’s anything wrong with me, but because I’m trying to change my habits and screens are everywhere and very addictive.


If you want to change the dynamic, start by changing how you communication with teens . Before your even talk to your teen, ask yourself the following.


  • How do I feel when I’m with my teen?
  • Am I making assumptions? If so, how does that come out in my “ask”?
  • What are the things s/he has control over that I am still trying to control?
  • On a scale from 1-10, how controlling am I?
  • Am I willing to change how I communicate even if I ultimately believe that s/he should just behave differently?


After you’ve done a little reflecting, talk when you aren’t already mad and listen your kid’s  perspective with this in mind: “I love you too much to keep fighting about this.” This doesn’t mean to abandon expectations and standards; it means acknowledging the limits of your control and then collaborating from there.


Lastly, if the screen thing has become an immovable issue, then I highly recommend using a 3rd party app. I wouldn’t consider it a fail; I’d consider it a bridge that you’re willing to construct until you and your teen can reach higher ground on your own.


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