How to Talk to Teens and Tweens Using Media to Break the Ice

Meeting children where their interests lie – rather than asking, forcing or, more ineffectively, begging them to approach yours – is essential.

Any parent of a teenager will tell you that the more you seem to need your teen’s attention, the less they are willing to give. This is where pop culture and media become more than light entertainment.

These are your secret weapons.

Have little conversation openers prepared – whether it’s a TikTok video when everyone is too busy to sit, a podcast for running errands in the car, or a TV show for when your child is finally ready to relax with you before bed – can help turn little moments of connection into big wins.

Warning: You won’t gain any credibility with your teen by asking if your sneakers are “chuegy” or by learning all the words to sing “Stay” from Justin Bieber and The Kid Laroi. Any good tool can be used to repair or damage things. Pop culture is no different, so be sure to use this new information to learn more about your child, not to cringe.

Below are some of my favorites from a variety of media that can help you open the door to better discussions with your kids. Experience it together, then listen to your child’s reaction.

By entering into their experiences, you will show that you are an understanding and flexible person, making the connections you need to stay on the same team throughout your teenage years.

Talk about integrating

I love “The Unicorn,” a family sitcom on Netflix about a widowed father raising two young daughters. If you are starting this series with your family, watch out for season one episode two when the father catches his daughter riding a bike in a forbidden place.

Her explanation of why she needed to take photos for Instagram is exactly what parents need to understand about the pressure young teens are feeling. Her thoughtful response is very good parenting. This show, and especially this moment, can open up some interesting discussions for your family on social media in particular or the need to feel normal in general.

Talk about college

The Primary Role of a Parent: Protecting Our Children from Despair
On his “People I (Mostly) Admire” podcast, host Steve Levitt interviews a variety of interesting people. The next time you ride in the car together, don’t miss Episode 13, “Don’t Try to Change All of a sudden”.

Yul Kwon – son of immigrants, season 13 winner of “Survivor,” attorney and FBI Academy instructor – discusses his crippling childhood anxiety and how he decided in seventh grade he would try to overcome it by doing one courageous thing every day.

You’ll find plenty of topics you can talk about with your preteen, including what it’s really like in college, how to decide what kind of person to be, and what it means to be brave.

Talk about anxiety and emotions

On her hugely popular Instagram account haleydrewthis, artist Haley Weaver shares a daily doodle celebrating everyday moments. Often times, she addresses her own anxiety and how she copes with it.

Follow your young teenager and you can share your favorites in your private messages, opening up a bright and colorful way to discuss complex emotions and the importance of self-care.

Talk about social networks

The 2019 documentary "The Great Hack"  Is a good launching pad for discussing social media manipulation.

Parents praised the 2020 docudrama “The Social Dilemma,” for its revealing insight into how social platforms manipulate their audiences. While the message was legit, the film does give off some important vibes after school, making it less useful for starting rich dialogues with tweens and teens.

The characters are cheesy and flat, and the stakes a bit too high, giving kids a reason to quickly erase the important messages behind the film.

If you’re looking for a great way to showcase how social platforms manipulate data (and users) behind the scenes, pick “The Great Hack” for your next family movie night.

Talking about sex and puberty

Ramona Young (left to right), Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Lee Rodriguez star in

Coming of age shows seem to pop up everywhere, much to my delight, as early adolescence is ripe with humor, warmth, and epiphany.

Mindy Kaling’s Netflix hit, “Never Have I Ever,” features a funny, sensitive, and realistic look at the life of a first-generation Indo-American high school student exploring ideas of dating, popularity, sex and growth. Parents will find plenty of time to open discussions about consent, choosing a mate (or not), and safe versus risky behaviors.
If this one feels too grown-up for your family, a gentler approach would be “Love on the Spectrum,” a heartwarming and intelligent series that follows adults with autism as they venture into the dating world. It touches on many important topics such as compatibility, loneliness, and intimacy, but in a way that may seem less personal or embarrassing to your teenager.

Talk just for fun

TikTok videos can be a fun way to connect, especially when time is tight. They can also signal your growing child that you still want to have fun together.

The Parent-Kid Challenge is a nice look at what teens really think about their parents, and the parents of this one do a great job of not panicking about their teens’ responses. Enjoying moments like this, even when the answers surprise you, is a great way to show your teen that you won’t overreact when they want to talk to you about more important things.

About Elaine Morales

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