Full Show Notes
Say you’ve got a touchy topic you want to approach your teen about–maybe you found a vape in their room! You know that the moment you bring it up, your teen will explode and slam the door in your face. Or, even if you are able to sit down and have a real discussion, you’re worried they’ll ask you a question you don’t know the answer to…and you’ll be caught like a deer in headlights! You might be so stressed about the conversation that you just don’t bring your concerns up at all.
Avoiding these tricky talks can be tempting, but ignoring them can have serious consequences. If no one walks a teen through complicated subjects like consent, drug use or self esteem, teens might not know what to do when they get themselves into real trouble. Opening up a line of communication with your teen can help them navigate the murky waters of adolescence, and help you rest easy knowing they’re not keeping secrets from you.
To figure out how you can approach uncomfortable discussions with your teen, we’re talking to Michelle Icard, author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before They Start High School. Michelle is a member of the Today Show Parenting Team, and has been featured in the Washington Post, Time, People Magazine, and more.
In our interview today we’re going over Michelle’s BRIEF model for tough conversations. Yes, this does mean keeping talks with teens short, but the acronym illuminates a super effective set of steps to ease into difficult discussions with kids. Michelle and I also break down how you can confront teens about independence, social media, healthy eating, dating, and more!
Michelle’s BRIEF Conversation Model
Starting a conversation with a teenager can be remarkably intimidating, but Michelle’s got it down to a science. She’s gathered the essential steps of having serious talks with teens and combined them into an acronym: BRIEF. In the episode, Michelle and I go through each and every step and explain how you can incorporate them the next time you have to strike up an uncomfortable chat with a teen.
The B in BRIEF stands for beginning peacefully. This diplomatic approach is a huge part of bridging the communication gap between you and your teen. It’s easy to freak out when you discover that they have a secret boyfriend or are hiding symptoms of an eating disorder. But if you come out right away with prescriptive or punitive measures, you’ll likely scare your kid off and cause them to shut down. Michelle’s method champions a calm, collected start to the conversation.
This can mean kicking off talks off with gentle, general questions that don’t include your teen. For example, if you’re worried that your teen may have started smoking weed, you could casually ask what they think about the current rise in legalization or inquire if it’s something they’d ever consider trying. You could discuss the possible side effects of hypothetically partaking in marijuana use. This non-confrontational tone will keep kids from feeling attacked or judged, giving them an open forum to communicate instead.
In our interview, Michelle and I go over the other four steps of the BRIEF method: relating to teens, interviewing for data, echoing your kid, and finally, feedback. This method works for delving into any topic…even complicated subjects like social media and dating.
Discussing Social Media With Teens
If you didn’t grow up with social media, it can seem pretty unnecessary–or even alarming. When teens are obsessed with joining Tik Tok and posting on Instagram, it’s normal to be worried that they’ll become addicted or post risque stuff without you knowing. However, Michelle argues that social media can be a great tool for passion and creativity. In the episode, she shares an anecdote about her own daughter creating a fun Hunger Games fan page and getting a shout out from one of the franchise’s actors!
If you want teens to be able to have a fulfilling experience online instead of an unhealthy one, Michelle says the key is to sit down and have conversations about it. Social media is a tool that can be useful, or dangerous…just like a buzz saw. And like a buzz saw, you wouldn’t want someone to start using social media if they didn’t know how to operate it safely. Having non judgemental, open talks with teens about what’s too inappropriate to post on Twitter can make a monumental difference.
Even after you have thorough dialogue with your teen about social media, you might find that they defy the rules you set. Michelle reminds parents to stay calm and collected, beginning with that peaceful approach. In the episode, we break down how and when to start discussing social media sites with teens. Stepping off the web and into real life, there’s another essential, but awkward discussion you’ll have to have with teens: dating.
Having the Dating Conversation
Every parent knows that at some point, they’re going to have to get into a talk with teens about the birds and the bees. It’s inevitable for teens to start crushing on classmates and feeling flirty, so it can be very valuable to talk to them about the ins and outs of relationships, sex and courtship. Michelle’s advice? Start young. If you can have these conversations early and often, you can prevent teens from falling into heartbreak or worse, being pressured into something they don’t want to do.
Interestingly, Michelle also recommends not imposing too many limits on teens who are inclined to engage in dating. She explains that parents often want to place kids under a dating age restriction, but that young relationships can actually help kids test the waters and understand what they truly want out of a romantic encounter. Most of the time, these courtships are nothing sexual or serious, but instead just attempts by teens to feel validated and wanted.
So should you be afraid to let kid go alone to the mall with their new beau? Michelle says that it can actually be better for two teens who are dating to hang out alone, instead of with a huge gang of people. Oftentimes, big groups can pressure “couples” to do things they might not be comfortable with. When kids are hanging out just the two of them they’re much more likely to be themselves, and not do anything too drastic, says Michelle in our interview.
In the Episode….
Michelle’s experience talking to parents around the world shines through in her savvy takes on tricky topics. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, we cover:
- How creating boundaries with teens can actually create stronger bonds
- Why teen’s process emotions differently than adults
- How to ditch passive aggression in favor of open communication
- What to say to encourage teens to eat healthy
- How you can help kids naturally become more independent
Although it’s hard to strike up serious conversations with teens, Michelle teaches us how to have productive, honest talks that don’t devolve into eye-rolling or arguments. Grateful to be sharing Michelle’s expertise and I hope you have as much fun listening as I did hosting the interview!
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Ask questions about your teen’s perception of vaping te get more information:
“What are you noticing about vaping? Are you hearing it come up a lot in the news? Do you think it’s kind of like past its prime? What are your thoughts?”-Michelle Icard
2. Enlist your teen’s help in setting independence benchmarks:(Members Only)
3. Be explicit about how you’re feeling–don’t leave your teen to decipher your face:(Members Only)
4. When things get too heated, take a break by using: (1 of 2)(Members Only)
5. When things get too heated, take a break by using: (2 of 2)(Members Only)
6. Set firm boundaries for middle school dating:(Members Only)
7. Keep the awkward talks short:(Members Only)
8. Once you’ve listened to your teen’s side, then you can jump in with your own thoughts:(Members Only)
9. How to tell your son/daughter that what they’re wearing might be a bit much (or, not enough):(Members Only)
10. If there’s a dress code for an activity, bring it up ahead of time:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: It sounds in here like you’ve been kind of in this for a long time. You do talks with parents and talks with kids surrounding all of these issues. This book really dives deep into 14 key issues that parents should talk about with tweens really before they get to high school. What propelled you into this? What inspired you then to turn into a book?
Michelle: Well, I have been doing this work now for 15 years. I started when my kids were two and four. They are now 18 and 20. I’m an empty nester. I’ve just taken them through the whole sort of growing up journey alongside my work, which has been nice to do. Really what inspired this book is I run a parenting group on Facebook, it’s called Less Stressed Middle School Parents. It’s full of parents who want the best for their kids and they want to have deep, meaningful conversations but they don’t know how. In part, because kids often seem unwilling to listen and so parents just have this kind of anxiety around knowing they have important information to share and really caring and really wanting to educate and feeling that there’s a roadblock there.
Michelle: I wanted to look at it very practically in terms of why kids don’t talk at that age, help parents understand what’s happening there developmentally so that you don’t take it as personally. Then also give parents real practical tips that they could start to incorporate into their communication with their kids that would open doors for them.
Andy: Where do these 14 topics come from? How did you narrow it down? It seems like there’s hundreds.
Michelle: There are too many topics, I know! I would bore people if I talk about all this stuff I really want to talk about. What I did is I started with just a mad brainstorm of everything I could think of that parents wanted to talk to their kids about. That was down to the minutia of please wear deodorant, and out to the macro like, please don’t drink alcohol and get sick and become dependent. From the biggest issues, suicide, to the tiniest little issues. I looked at all that. I wrote them all on note cards. I spread them all out. Then I started saying like, okay, these could be paired together. These could be paired together. The factors are broad. They’re like how to take care of yourself. But there are examples in there of everything ranging from deodorant to cutting.
Andy: You talk in the introduction about having walls, putting walls in place. You say that your walls personally are sleep, autonomy, unconditional love, and dignity. What do you mean by putting up walls and why are those yours?
Michelle: Yeah, it’s a little counterintuitive to think that boundaries actually give you more freedom. But I think one of the challenges parents have in talking to kids is they are really afraid that something’s going to come up they’re not prepared for. Like, oh, I don’t know, is my kid too young for me to start talking about this really heavy topic? I don’t want to put something on their radar, or I won’t know the answer if they ask me about that. There’s a lot of anxiety around what might happen in this conversation. I used an analogy of a racquetball court where a lot of things can feel chaotic. The ball can fly in a direction that is completely unexpected. It might hit you. If you’re me, duck and fall and make a fool of yourself. But you have the safety of these four walls, which allow the ball to go in any direction and you can kind of get control again.
Michelle: I tried to think about, well, what were my family boundaries that I set for my kids as they were growing up that meant we could have hard conversations? Sleep you mentioned is number one for me. I mean, I am a person who loves sleep and it was really important to me that my kids were well-rested. If I felt like things were going off the rails, I could always just say, you know what? We’ll just sleep on it. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. It’s no big deal. It’s an easy out. Also, I just think it’s really good way to take care of yourself, to get enough sleep. Then autonomy was important because I knew from early on as a parent that I was going to parent the kid I got, right? You can’t just dial up your idea of what a really cool kid is. You’re just going to get a certain kid and that’s what you get. It’s a little bit genetics and a little bit nurturing and a little bit who knows what.
Michelle: You’ve got to be really flexible with the kid who arrives to you. Unconditional love is sort of an expression of that too. I wanted my kids to know that even moments where we were upset with each other or really upset with each other, that the underlying current would always be we love each other. We can figure this out, even though right now we’re streaming mad. That was a wall for us. Finally, this idea of dignity that not just in our home, that kids and humans and people who we encountered deserved to be treated with dignity. That no matter what we were going to talk about and what feelings we needed to express to each other, there wouldn’t be name calling. There wouldn’t be putting down. You could express yourself, but it had to have an air of dignity about it.
Andy: I like that, the idea of walls. We talk a lot here about values and how to build a culture, family culture. It strikes me that it’s sort of a similar idea, just figuring out what’s your non-negotiable things that you can always come back to that are the foundation of your family culture. I love that metaphor of the walls of the racquetball court. Your book is founded on this model you call the brief model for conversations. What is a brief conversation and how do you do it?
Michelle: Great. A brief conversation is just what it sounds like. First and foremost, I don’t want any conversation with your tween or teen to be prolonged or for the parent to feel like they have to prove a point or get the last word in or explain everything at once. It’s an acronym and each letter stands for something. I like that it also just very confidently says, have short talks. Your kid does not want to sit around for a really long time. A conversation is not a lecture either. It got to be two-sided. The way that it works is the letter B in brief stands for begin peacefully. This is really hard for parents. A topic pops up on their radar and they panic and they’re like, oh no, kids are vaping. I better quickly cut to the chase and be like, don’t vape. It could kill you. If you vape, you’re going to be in so much trouble. Right?
Michelle: It’s not a very peaceful way to engage your child in sharing their ideas and opinions. I want parents to start with sort of a curiosity, a gentle question, or an observation that has nothing to do with your child. Like, what are you noticing about vape? Are you hearing it come up a lot in the news? Do you think it’s kind of like past its prime? What are your thoughts? Start gently. The R stands for relate to your kid. You want to be on the same team as you’re talking about this stuff. That might sound like, yeah. You know, it just wasn’t a thing when I was younger. Of course, everybody’s talking about cigarettes then, or just some kind of way to say that you get it. The I in brief is to interview for data. What I mean by that is you don’t want to begin a conversation by peppering your kid with questions.
Michelle: You want to just earn that moment where they trust you enough that you can ask them some questions. I also tend to think that you want to be as neutral as possible during this phase. The question should probably be general and not, well, have you ever vaped? Did you like vaping and how much did you vape?
Andy: Yeah. “Which of your friends are vaping? Can you give me their names and their parents’ phone numbers?”
Michelle: That’s so funny! Exactly right. Exactly right. Keep it cool. I want parents to think of it like they are a district attorney who has nothing riding on this case. The questions, they’re a little boring to you. You’re just earning their trust that you’re not going to do what you just said, because that’s what they’re afraid of.
Andy: You point out later in the book, loyalty is so important to teenagers. Anytime you single out their friends, they’re going to be in this conflicting situation where they want to be honest with you but they want to protect their friends. Their friends are probably going to win that.
Michelle: They’re going to win that.
Andy: They’re going to lie.
Michelle: Yeah. That’s a great sort of forward part of the book to flashback to right now. The E, brief E is echo. That just means you need to let your kid know that you’ve heard and that you aren’t racing through to get to the point where you tell them what to do. Echoing is—and if you’ve been to a therapist or seeing a therapist on TV. It’s that thing where you say like, it sounds like you’re saying this. Right. You really want to confirm that you’re both understanding what each other is saying here, because you’re probably making assumptions and they might be too.
Andy: Yeah. Right. Make sure you really are on the same page because sometimes we hear the word someone is saying but we are arriving at a different conclusion in our head and what they’re actually trying to voice.
Michelle: You hear the words, you’re arriving at a different conclusion or you’re plotting what you’re going to say in response.
Michelle: I mean, I’m like a total teacher’s pet from back in school. I’m the kid who was always like, somebody else is telling their story and I’m like, okay, my story will be out. I’m not listening. I’m thinking about what I need to say. We have to check ourselves on that. The F is the moment that most parents have been waiting for. This is where you get to give a little bit of feedback. Again, it’s sort of you’ve earned your moment here. You have established that you’re a good listener, that you’re curious about what they think and feel. At this point you can say, “Well, here’s what I’m thinking about the subject.” You can ask them what they’re thinking. Your feedback, maybe prescriptive. You may say, “Well, I sure hope that you don’t. I have these concerns…” however you want it to be, but you’ve got to arrive at this point last. What happens is many parents begin at that moment, and that’s when teens shutdown.
Andy: Okay. B is Begin peacefully. R is Relating and finding some common ground. I was interviewing, collecting the data. He was echoing back what they said and making them feel heard. Then F was finally getting the feedback. I like that. That’s cool. It’s memorable and succinct. It’s nice how you use it throughout the book. We go through these then 14 different topics of conversations. Each one, you have examples of conversations and you actually show how to follow those steps and structure, the talk. You give examples of exactly what you can say which is really helpful. All good. Great stuff.
Michelle: Oh, I’m glad. I hope that the scripts are helpful in the way that you said that they sort of inspire you to see what might happen. Also, the disclaimer is your kid doesn’t have the script. They might not say…
Andy: They’re not going to follow along with their lines. But that’s not what you were supposed to say. I don’t know. You were supposed to say, yes, mom, I understand.
Michelle: Exactly. You can only do what you can do. I say, this is a lot more improv than a script for a play.
Andy: There’s a study in here about reading emotions in people’s faces. You say they put people in an MRI scanner and show them pictures of emotional faces. Adults were able to read them correctly 100% of the time. But teenagers were only accurate 50% of the time. Also, they’re using a different part of their brain to actually assess what is going on there. What does that tell us about parents and teenagers and what should we do about it?
Michelle: This is I think the piece of advice that I get the most feedback on from parents in terms of being a game-changer for how they talk to their kid. This is a study that came out of McLean Hospital, which is one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals. There’s a neurologist there, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd. She put adults through an MRI. While they were in there had their brain hooked up, she showed them pictures of people’s faces, just emoting very general expressions. She said, just based on looking at this person’s face, can you tell me what they’re feeling? As you said, 100% of the time adults can do that. They could say, yes, that woman feels frightened or that woman feels angry or that woman feels happy. Then because they were hooked up to an MRI, she could see that they were using the prefrontal cortex in order to read facial expressions.
Michelle: She did the same thing again with teenagers. They got it wrong 50% of the time. The interesting thing is that they weren’t using the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that’s responsible for things like decision-making and critical thinking and reading facial expressions, but it sort of recalibrates itself and essentially takes a break during the teen years. The amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain, it’s like a spaz and it just jumps up and it’s like, please pick me. I want to do all the decision-making. It tries to read facial expressions. When it gets it wrong, 50% of the time, it almost always chooses anger as the expression it sees. I know for me, I’m 48. When I look concerned, I have a really wrinkled forehead.
Michelle: Also, when I’m angry, I have a wrinkled forehead. When I’m interested, I have a wrinkled forehead. When I want to show empathy, I have a wrinkled forehead. My wrinkly forehead is just a fact of life and it’s also how I express a wide range of emotions. But when a middle schooler or a teenager sees that furrowed brow, they automatically think anger. I have parents who tell me all the time, I don’t know why things just went so crazy at my house. My daughter came home. She walked in. I said, hey, how was your math test? She yelled, I don’t know why you’re so upset. I don’t even know what grade I got yet, and stormed off. I said, oh, you probably wrinkled your forehead and you didn’t even know it. The tip, I call it having a Botox brow.
Michelle: You don’t actually have to get Botox, but I want you to pretend a celebrity on a late night talk show and you’ve been so overly Botox’ed, you can’t move your forehead and just have a super neutral expression when you’re talking to your kid. It’s total game changer. Your kid will open up and talk to you about all kinds of stuff because they don’t think you’re mad at them.
Andy: I like that. You practiced that? How do you get good at that? I feel like that’s easy to forget.
Michelle: You do have to practice. I would just use my palm and iron out my forehead whenever I’m talking to my kids. Then eventually you just train your forehead to just stay in one position. But you’ll mess up. You’ll crinkle a lot and that’s totally fine. But the other thing you can do is if you sense that that’s happening, you can say, oh wait, do you think I’m angry? Because I have a headache and I just want to say I’m not at all angry. Or I’m just truly interested, I’m kind of excited, or use your words.
Andy: You have some really interesting tips on not being passive-aggressive in here, which I really liked. A few phrases that we should avoid, lighten up, fine, don’t overreact, whatever you want, and you must have missed my point. What’s wrong with these phrases and why should we avoid them? What should we say instead?
Michelle: I think that those phrases are, they’re sort of crutches for us when we feel as though we have been undervalued or underappreciated or someone’s mistreating us. When we don’t know how to get them to feel the way we want them to feel about us, which is grateful and appreciative and loving, it feels like that’s the go-to. It’s the verbal way of throwing your hands up in the air and walking out of the room and being like, well, just forget it. I think all of those phrases are common and they all deliver the same conversation ending message, which is like, I’m just not going to engage with you. It’s whatever, it’s fine, whatever you think. I’m guilty of it, I know. I think that part of the reason we do this as I said is because you’re desperate to be treated differently and you don’t know how to get that. But no one ever hears a statement like that and has an epiphany. They just get irritated.
Michelle: As much as we want it to work, it doesn’t work. What actually works is saying how you actually feel. That takes a deep breath and just saying, “I don’t know, I just feel undervalued right now. Let me take a little break and think about why that is.” I just wish that people appreciated the work I do around here, or that you felt some gratitude for the time I spent making this meal even if it’s not your favorite. Whatever it is, but you can say that really clear, kind, and simple way without being accusatory and without being passive-aggressive.
Andy: There’s also an implication in a couple of these like saying, lighten up, or don’t overreact. You’re like pushing the blame onto your teenager. Like, well, hey, because everything I said was totally clear and it was totally fine, so I don’t know why you’re overreacting because I am doing this perfectly. It’s a little bit of like, yeah, I see why it’s in the passive-aggressive section because it’s like a sneaky way of putting the blame on your teenager for whatever’s happening in the conversation.
Michelle: Yeah. I think that’s really wise. That’s such a good way of looking at it because we do. I mean, I think it is factual to say that teens are more emotional. That’s that amygdala in their brain that is working really hard for them. It’s also nice to accept that that comes with some really great side effects. Kids are highly emotional. Teens are highly emotional, but that also can make them incredibly empathetic, that can make them incredibly motivated. They can be highly sensitive to your needs if you’re good at expressing them. When you blow them off for being emotional, it’s not a bit fair. There’s got to be a better way of talking through that.
Andy: What does that look like?
Michelle: I think the best way, whether your child is having an emotional moment or not. I mean, if your child is really emotional, then time is your friend. I think it’s nice to just say–
Andy: Let things cool down a little bit.
Michelle: Yeah, like “This is a lot. I understand.” “I understand why you’re getting really emotional about this. It’s a lot to think about and a lot to process. Let’s take some time.” I do suggest a technique that I think works really well for kids who are getting really ramped up and you can’t quite figure out what’s happening with them emotionally. It’s something I call try this first. In a moment when things are really pleasant, you can say like, oh, I heard this lady on a podcast or however you want to bring it up. She suggested making a list of 10 things that make you feel better when you do them. They do not have to be groundbreaking. It could be watching YouTube videos of puppies or doing yoga or baking a cupcake, tray of cupcakes or anything. It doesn’t have to be super productive. It just has to make you feel nice when you do it.
Michelle: You list those 10 things out. Then when your child is having a freak out, you can do what I just said like, I understand. This is a lot. Why don’t you go to your room for just 30 minutes and do something on your try this list. Just treat yourself to that time to do whatever it is that makes you feel good. If it’s watching a sitcom or listening to Taylor Swift, it doesn’t matter what it is. In 30 minutes, let’s get back together and let’s talk about what we think we should do next. Almost all the time, that cool off period of just relaxing and indulging will completely change the vibe.
Andy: I like that. Yeah. That’s cool. Maybe you can do something on your own list as well. I had this talk interview with this lady named Joani Geltman at one point. She has like a cool tactic that she said, which is I’m reminded when we’re talking about this putting the blame on your teenager, where she says, saying like, we’re both getting out of hand right now. Taking some of the responsibility yourself instead of saying like, hey, you really need to calm down. It’s like, hey, these things are getting a little out of hand. I think we both need to calm down a little bit and maybe you can make your own list too and go do something off of that.
Michelle: I highly encourage it. The one piece of advice I always give to parents of middle schoolers is get a hobby, because so often we feel like our kids are everything in our hobbies and that’s really detrimental to you and the kid. You should have some things that you love to do that are just for you. You should take time to do them.
Andy: Talk to me about independence. Again, you have a section of things not to say in the independence chapter, which I really thought were savvy. Why should we avoid saying, I know you’re ready but I’m not ready. I love you too much to let you go. It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s all the other people out there. And simply, I said no.
Michelle: Some of those I think are just grasping at straws for something that will get the kid to stop talking about it. I said no is a great example of that. It’s really-
Andy: “Just stop.”
Michelle: I just think it’s not enough. If your kid isn’t ready to do something independently that they want to do, then I think you’ve got to provide them some benchmarks for what will show to you that they’re ready. I have some of those in the book. That can be like being able to move around in the world safely. Like, I see that when you cross the street you aren’t looking both ways. That’s a big concern. Let’s practice that. When you’ve got some proficiency there, that’s awesome. You’ll be ready to go out and play basketball at the school without anybody walking you up there. Whatever it might be. That’s one. The one that really bums me out the most is the one about, it’s not you, it’s everyone else I’m worried about. It sounds like a compliment to the kid.
Andy: Yeah. Right. It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s I don’t trust everybody else.
Michelle: Yeah. You say that all the time to kids.
Michelle: You think it sort of butters them up, but it doesn’t. I think it frustrates them because truly, if you did trust them, you would let them go because it’s not as if in four months or three years, or whenever you do let them go out independently, which I assume you will.
Andy: At some point you’re going to let them. Right?
Michelle: You have to. Right. What has happened on that day that’s changed? Suddenly there are no predators in the world.
Andy: All those terrible people just disappeared.
Michelle: Yeah. No cars are going fast. All the same risks will always be there.
Andy: Exactly. Yeah.
Michelle: Really, it does have to do with your child’s readiness and trustworthiness. Putting it any other way I think is unfair. It goes back to, how do we get you ready?
About Michelle Icard
Michelle Icard is a speaker, author, and educator who helps kids, parents, and teachers navigate the complicated social world of early adolescence. Her two books are Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen and Middle School Makeover. Her middle school leadership programs, Athena’s Path & Hero’s Pursuit, have been implemented at schools across the country and she speaks around the globe at schools and parenting events. Michelle is a member of the TODAY Show parenting team and NBC News Learn. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, CNN, Time, and People Magazine.
She lives with her family in Charlotte, North Carolina.