Tag Archives: Parenting

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk With a Struggling Adolescent

Dear Scott,

I have an 11-year-old son who is struggling and I don’t know what to do. We recently relocated overseas, far from home and family and friends. Then the COVID-19 restrictions hit. My boy’s behavior changed significantly. He is always angry and frustrated. I’ve tried to keep him busy in sports and music, but he loses motivation. He used to be a good guitar player, now he rarely plays. When I take him to walk the dog, within a couple of minutes he heads back home on his own. And he doesn’t want to talk. I really want to re-establish open communication with him. For a long time he was my best and probably only friend, and that has changed. I feel we need each other more than ever right now. How can I give him a safe environment so he feels free to speak his mind and express his anger and frustration?

Struggling Father

Dear Struggling Father,

As a father of four sons, the youngest of which is 11 years old, I appreciate and feel your question more than ever. We are definitely living in unique times. None of us was given an instruction manual on how to raise children, let alone how to do so amidst the circumstances you describe. Fortunately, we have been given an outline on how to step up to these kinds of moments. The skills provided in Crucial Conversations help us develop an environment of open dialogue that can improve relationships and increase trust. Try the following:


With any difficult interpersonal situation, it is imperative that you start with heart. To get your heart in the right place, ask yourself, “What do I really want?”

It seems that when it matters most, we are often at our worst. As parents, we let our emotions get the best of us and we end up behaving in ways that are completely contrary to our good motives. And when we reflect on “What do I really want?” we often amend the question with the following words: from them. This approach is limiting. Our motive can’t be merely to have the other person change. We are better to reflect on what we really want for them. This is a stronger motive and one that will encourage dialogue and not provoke emotion.

I remember an experience I had years ago while visiting with a friend’s college-aged son. Matthew had just finished his first semester of college. He was attending on an academic scholarship. I asked him how his first semester went. He went on and on, describing the fun he had been having. Finally, I interrupted and asked him about his studies. He said, “Not good.” I replied, “What do you mean, ‘not good’?” He added, “I got a 1.7.” I responded, “Yes, that’s not good.” Then I asked the question, “What did your dad say?” I was anxious to hear how his father had reacted when learning that his son had not only had a horrible academic semester, but that he also lost his scholarship as a result. Matthew looked at me and said, “When I called him and told him, my dad said, ‘I’m going to have to call you back.’”

Wow! What a response. I imagined my friend’s emotions swelling and him being tempted to lash out and express disappointment and frustration, which would have potentially damaged his relationship with his son. Instead, because he knew what he wanted for his son and not just from him, he took a moment to gather his thoughts and settle his emotions. Yes, he wanted his son to change. But more than that he wanted a strong relationship with his son. He wanted his son to feel safe coming to him in moments of failure as well as triumph.

Embedded in your question lies your true desire. I can see that what you really want is for your son to be happy, free of anger and stubbornness, and for the two of you to have a relationship built on open dialogue where you can support one another. With this desire as your compass, you will naturally be guided in the correct path to approaching your son.


The other day I watched my colleague, Emily Gregory, share a message about helping teens manage stress. She spoke of the importance of validating our children’s feelings. She told a story of speaking with her teenager about the changes brought on by COVID-19 and then listening to her share her strong emotions, to which she replied, “That is totally normal to feel this way. In fact, I would be concerned about you if you didn’t feel this way.”

Affirm what your son is feeling and assure him that his feelings are normal. By validating his feelings, you are not only providing space to dialogue, but in many ways you are inviting him into that space. A little validation can go a long way.


It is common during crucial conversations for people to shut down and retreat or to respond with anger. To reestablish dialogue and create a safe space, get curious. I once heard it said, “When people become furious, get curious.”

Ask your son questions to find out why he is feeling the way he is. Be sincere about getting to the source of his feelings. When we show genuine interest, people are less likely to retreat from dialogue. Be patient in allowing him to share his feelings. When you ask him how he’s doing, he may respond with a flippant “Fine!” When his tone of voice or body language are inconsistent with his words, try “mirroring.” Mirroring is the act of reflecting a person’s behavior back by describing their behavior. So, respond with a simple, “You don’t seem fine. You don’t play guitar anymore and you’re quiet all the time. Is everything ok?” This is a great way to show your son that you really are curious and that you want him to share.

Also, suspend your inclination to solve his problems. Just listen. This may require a little priming. My sons have never really been the type to naturally share their feelings and emotions, even when I ask. Like priming an old-fashioned hand pump, sometimes you have to put something in to get something out. If your son resists opening up, offer up your best guess of what you think he is feeling or thinking. Don’t worry if your guess is not accurate. If you’re wrong, he will let you know. But if you’re right, he may confirm and open up.


Years ago, my third son taught me a valuable lesson. He was 15 years old and had his driver’s permit. On Christmas Day, we went to a movie as a family. When the movie was over, my son asked if he could drive. My wife and I agreed. I was in the passenger seat, his mother and younger brother were in the middle seats, and his two older brothers were the back seats.

On our drive home, my son demonstrated that it’s possible to make a left-hand turn without signaling. He also learned a valuable lesson. As we approached the intersection where he would turn left, the light turned yellow. My son decided he would make the yellow light and advanced into the intersection. But because he failed to use his turn signal to indicate his intentions, an on-coming vehicle also decided to make the yellow light. Fortunately, brakes were applied, and an accident was avoided.

Too often, like my son, we fail to use our blinker. When others don’t know our intentions, they are left to guess. In my experience, we are all terrible guessers. Don’t assume your son will know what you really want. Use your blinker. Let him know that what you really want is for him to be happy and for the two of you to have a stronger, more open relationship. Doing so may allow you to avoid a conversational collision.

In order to help your son and restore your relationship, remember to:

  1. Start With Heart: Know what you really want for him.
  2. Validate His Feelings: Let him know it’s okay for him to feel the way he does.
  3. Be Curious: Ask, listen, mirror, listen, prime, listen, ask…
  4. Declare Your Intent: Let him know what you really want.

Be patient. It won’t happen overnight. It will take time, consistency, and persistence.

All the best,


How Do I Say That Category

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VitalSmarts Master Trainer Maria Moss talks about finding authentic ways to fight racism.

Crucial Conversations QA

Aligning Different Parenting Styles

Dear Joseph,

My husband is constantly angry at our fifteen-year-old son. They are always in shouting matches and it drives me crazy. When I walk away from them, my husband says I am “burying my head in the sand.” My husband is very negative and set in his ways, and he expects our son to have the same ideas. My husband also verbalizes his disappointment in our son and tells him he is only concerned with himself. Granted, there are times this is true, but he’s a typical teenage boy. He’s sometimes mouthy, but he’s a good kid, works hard even though he may complain, and is never in trouble anywhere but at home.

I want to support my husband, but I feel he is often wrong, that he goes too far, and that some of his expectations are unreasonable. When I try to talk about it, he says that I am taking our son’s side and that the only way he can keep the peace is to just shut his mouth and not say anything. He’s not very open to conversation. Help!

End of My Rope

Dear End,

Aren’t marriages wonderful? And I mean that! Sustained, intimate relationships are usually both the greatest opportunity for personal growth and the greatest challenge of our lives. And they are the former because they are the latter.

You are exactly the gift your husband needs, and he may just be the perfect gift for you. Children need both affirmation and influence. It sounds like you’re world-class at affirmation and he has a bias for influence. Unfortunately, many relationships break down because we keep trying to make the other person be good at what we value without properly recognizing our need for what they bring to the party. Now, I’m not suggesting your husband’s approach to influence is the best. But it sounds as though what’s important to him is trying to help bring out the best in your son. And your approach to affirming him may, at times, come at the expense of helping him aspire to higher standards. But that should not take away from the fact that you see great worth and beauty in him. That’s wonderful!

So the question is how do you turn conflicting values into complementary ones? How can you and your husband create a relationship where your son gets the best you both have to offer—and where you both learn to offer it in a healthier way?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with safety. Help your husband know that you value what he is trying to do for your son. Express genuine appreciation for his desire to influence your son to strive. Point out specific ways you can see that your son has benefited from having him as a father. Then scrupulously avoid using the word, “but.” Don’t do it! Get it out of your brain.

After affirming your value for having a positive influence on your son, don’t go on to say, “But…you often do it about things that aren’t that important.” There are no “buts” when you’re affirming people and creating Mutual Purpose. There are only “ands.” The fact that you appreciate him wanting to challenge your son is not offset in any way by your desire to also affirm him. The two are complementary, not competing, values. So don’t make it seem like they are in conflict by using the b-word.

2. Motivate with natural consequences. If your husband is reluctant to engage in this conversation with you, think of things that are important to your husband that will help him want to engage. Then share these as you invite him into this complex discussion. Think, for example, about pain, concerns, worries, or problems he may have with you or with your son that are connected to the changes you’d like to discuss.

For example, you might say, “John, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can better work together with our son. I know you and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. I know you are also frustrated that he has drifted away from you. I also know you don’t like how I criticize you at times about how you handle things. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I want to find a way to help you have the relationship you want and to partner in a way that works for you as we solve problems with him. Could we set aside some time to discuss this?”

3. Work on you first. Realize that while you will have useful feedback for your husband, he will likely see weaknesses in you that you must be willing to hear. Be open and humble. If you get defensive in the conversation, avoid reacting in the moment. Say, “I’m sure there is merit in what you’re saying. I’m feeling defensive right now so I’m going to need time to think about it. Can I do that and then get back with you later to talk about what I will do with these suggestions?”

If you are to work together better, it is going to require both of you to change. You will need to be more willing to be part of raising tough issues with your son and holding him accountable. Your husband will need to be willing to learn to do it in a healthier way—and focus on big things while letting go of little things. If you both work on yourselves, you’ll be a potent parenting team for your son.

4. Organize for the long run. Have realistic expectations. If both you and your husband have habits that have been nurtured over a lifetime, they aren’t going to change after one conversation. I suggest you frame this conversation as a starting point, then agree on ways you can help each other stick with commitments you make about how to work together more productively. Be patient with one another as you try new approaches. Expect relapses. I suggest you read our book, Change Anything, as a couple, for ideas on how to create a plan that will help you both make steady progress in changing these habits.

I applaud your commitment to your son and wish you the best as you find ways to complement one another, grow together, and give your son the gifts both of you want so much to offer.