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Having difficult conversations

Photo: Communication method and timing are important things to consider when having difficult conversations with your teen.

Sometimes you will need to talk to your teen about uncomfortable or sensitive topics. It can be hard to know what to say or how to approach these conversations. However, there are ways you can make tricky or sensitive discussions easier for you both.

Here are some top tips for having tricky discussions with your teen.

Consider your communication method

If your child uses different ways to communicate or technology, such as a radio aid, get everything set up and ask them how they’d prefer to communicate before you begin. Having everything in place beforehand can make your chat that bit easier.

You might find that the best time to have a difficult conversation is during a shared activity. For example, going for a walk. If you think this will work best, make sure the conversation is accessible. For example, facing them so they can lipread.

Part of good communication is about the environment, timing of the conversation and context within the everyday life and experiences of your child or teen.

Avoid concentration fatigue

Many young people find it hard to concentrate after a busy day – this is called ‘concentration fatigue.’ Deaf people experience concentration fatigue more often than their peers. This is because they use more of their cognitive resources in listening, lip-reading or following signed conversations.

If your conversation might end up being long or complex, having breaks or shorter chats can make it easier for your teen and gives you the space to think about what you’ve talked about too.

Here are some other tips for avoiding concentration fatigue.

Limit distractions and background noise

Choose the best place to have your conversation. This should be a well-lit space, where your teen feels comfortable and relaxed, away from distractions such as siblings, the TV or washing machine.

Mum Tina finds a calm space to talk through sensitive topics with her son Charlie.

“Sitting in a quiet room away from his siblings helps when it comes to talking about important topics or life-changing decisions he’s part of. This gives him my full attention and he isn’t distracted by noises around him.”

Create a safe space for conversations

Being honest early on helps prepare for more difficult conversations in the future.

Tina makes sure she is open and honest with Charlie.

“When it comes to difficult conversations with my son, Charlie, I’ve always found openness and honesty was the best policy. We might slightly sugar coat it so it’s more age appropriate or follow it with a confidence boost to remind him that not one person is the same and that he’s special.”

Sometimes your teen will not be ready to talk. It’s important to respect their boundaries and try broaching the topic another time or giving them space. You can also avoid making your child feel under pressure to be open and honest if they’re not ready to be – they shouldn’t feel they have to share if they don’t want to.

If certain topics feel too awkward for your child to have with you, suggest someone else they could talk to, such as an older sibling or other relative, or even a teacher.

It’s important to reflect ask open ended questions, demonstrate compassion and understanding and use empathic, open body language. The conversation also needs to occur when you are in the right space. For example, if you go into a conversation when you are feeling, anxious, stressed or angry it increases the risk of your well-intended discussion not being as positive as you would hope.

Discussing deafness

As a deaf person, your teen may face challenges other young people don’t have to deal with. Being left out or dealing with miscommunication can be upsetting. Acknowledging these experiences and discussing ways to overcome them can help.

If your teen has recently become deaf, they may have mixed feelings. It might take some time to accept their deafness but encouraging conversations about their experiences can be useful. You can help them embrace their deaf identity by looking at the positives that come with being deaf. For example, being able to turn your hearing device(s) off or having a whole other language to learn and use.

Ask your teen how they want to refer to their deafness. They may have a preference about using terms like deaf, hearing impaired or hearing loss. How they define their deafness is their choice and it means you know to use the term they feel comfortable with.

It’s useful to recognise when someone else might be better placed to have this conversation. If you don’t have much experience of deafness, let them know you could learn with them or maybe you can facilitate a conversation with someone who does e.g. another deaf person or a professional, like their audiologist.

Ann, mum to Daniel, who is profoundly deaf, explains why joining the Deaf community was important for them.

“The positives of this community and sense of belonging helped immensely with the inevitable ‘Why did I have to be deaf?’ conversations as we got to the time when Daniel realised that being deaf made him different.”

Talking about other tricky topics

Sex education

Accessible information about sex for deaf young people isn’t easy to find and although conversations about these topics aren’t necessarily easy, they are important. You can find out more about talking to your teen about sex here.

Drugs and alcohol

Having open conversations about substances with your child or teen will help them feel informed and to make safer choices for themselves. This includes communicating your expectations, such as setting some ground rules about any usage at home and talking about how to use legal substances safely. For example, discussing the legal drinking ages, different strengths of alcohol or mixing drinks.

Find out more at Talk to Frank or get help on the NHS website.

Gender identity and sexuality

As your teen gets older, they might question their sexuality or gender identity, or they may already have started to do so. They might feel confused about who they are, about their attractions (or not) to other people, or under pressure to ‘be’ one thing or another. It’s important to reassure them that they don’t have to decide on a label: They may already know their identity. Coming out to family as lesbian, gay, bi, trans or questioning can be a difficult and brave decision.

Talking positively and without judgement about LGBTQ people will help your teen feel more comfortable with their identity, or in considering, questioning or discussing their identity or sexual orientation. You can signpost them to information about sexual identity on Childline. Find out more about coming out and advice for parents at Stonewall.

You may also be interested in reading about Elliot, a transgender young man who is moderately to severely deaf.

Mental health

Deaf young people can be more likely to struggle with their mental health for many reasons, including communication barriers and feelings of isolation.  If you’re worried about your teen, check-in with them by starting a conversation with general questions, like ‘how is school going?’, or let them know you’re concerned with questions such as ‘you seem a bit down at the moment. Are you feeling ok?’

Your teen may not want to discuss their feelings, but you can offer a judgement-free space without being intrusive and let them know where to get support if they think they need it. You could also share your own experiences with them, if this is appropriate.

We have lots more information on supporting teens with their emotional health and wellbeing here.

Find out more on the NHS website.