How to Engage Your Teen on Controversial Issues

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How to Engage Your Teen on Controversial Issues

Debate, not divide

By June Yong | 2 February 2021

In late January 2021, three people were arrested for taking part in a public assembly without a permit outside the Ministry of Education (MOE) headquarters in Buona Vista. They were aged between 19 and 32.

Teens were also on the forefront in the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, organising and leading marches involving hundreds of people in cities all around the world.

Jessica Taft, a leading scholar on youth activism, says that youth activism is on the rise around the globe and adults will do well to pay attention.1

What is fuelling the growing activism among the youth today?

And what can we do to bridge the gap with our teens at home – especially when they hold differing views from us?

  1. Encourage openness and questions at home
    Create a culture at home that encourages questioning and debate – respectfully. This openness creates a safe space within the home for our teens to air their doubts and questions, particularly surrounding complex cultural ideas and ideology.

    As Focus on the Family Singapore trainers Elvin and Esther Foong articulated in a recent article2, “When we create an environment where our children feel comfortable asking difficult questions, and where they know they will receive authentic answers, however imperfect, then we have a better chance of ensuring that they do not subscribe to radical, extremist ideas, no matter how great the pressure may be to succumb.”

  2. Be ready to connect
    In order to build understanding, we need to come with hearts that are open and ready to connect. So find a conducive place and time to start a conversation. Make sure that both you and your child are feeling relaxed, or better still, make it a routine, such as Question Night on Fridays where any family member can present a question to talk about.

  3. Listen well
    Listening is one of the most essential skills for building a strong relationship with your teen. Try not to rush to bring your point across and give your child ample room to air his or her thoughts.

    In his book The Lost Art of Listening, Michael Nichols writes:

    “Real listening means imagining yourself into the other’s experience: concentrating, asking questions. Understanding is furthered not by knowing…but by investigating…”

    To investigate, ask open-ended questions like:
    • “How did you feel when…?”
    • “What part of this issue bothers you the most…?”
    • “How do you see yourself as being part of the solution?"
  4. Share your concerns
    Once teens feel understood, they are likely to be more open to hearing from you. But ask if they’d be open to hear your thoughts about the issue. Then if given the green light, share more about what worries you or what you think about the topic.

    For example:
    • “I’m worried that this issue is distracting you from your schoolwork. Can we perhaps come up with a reasonable plan as to how much time and effort you’ll spend on this?”
  5. Refrain from nagging or over-reacting
    Nagging or over-reacting when your teen opens up to share his or her innermost thoughts with you is a sure-fire way of shutting down all communication.

    Instead, when confronted with an idea or argument that shakes you to your very core, take a deep breath and count to 10. Then respond with: “That’s interesting…tell me more.”
  6. Value connection
    There is a cultural tendency to avoid hard conversations because we don’t want to rock the boat. However, this often results in a culture of avoidance at home where sensitive topics are simply swept under the carpet.

    Discussing hard topics respectfully and calmly can actually make your relationship stronger.

    • If emotions run high and words turn belligerent during discussions, douse those fires with respect and genuine listening. Or simply call for time-out.
    • You don’t always have to have the final word.
    • You can be authentic in sharing how you feel too.

Know that your teens are entitled to their own opinions and just because their opinions are different doesn’t mean they are against you.

At the end of the day, if you prioritise connection over conversion, you will likely be able to retain a certain amount of influence over your fast-growing teen, and avoid the struggles of rebellion that seem to mark the adolescent years.


  1. Retrieved from Youth activism is on the rise around the globe, and adults should pay attention, says author (17 Sep, 2019)
  2. Retrieved from Families more critical than ever in growing faith, fighting extremism (28 Jan, 2021)

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


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