An Expert Reveals How to Talk to Tweens


    Rowan’s mission is to help parents maintain an open dialogue with their daughters, to provide a safe place for them to explore their changing feelings, and to encourage them to find the strength in their own voice.

    We recently sat down with Dr. Colleen Jacobson, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at Iona College, to explore her thoughts on the best ways to communicate with young girls. Here’s what she told us.

    What are some of the big challenges tweens face today with regard to relationships and developing a strong “voice?”

    Early adolescence is a time when girls are questioning their identities and looking outward to others to understand themselves. It is a time when peers become a strong influence. It is natural for tweens to compare themselves to their peers in all areas: academics, popularity, looks, athletic ability. This is nothing new.

    However, I do think that today's tweens face unique challenges due to their constant connection to others via technology. They are literally bombarded, 24/7, with images of “perfect” people doing amazing, exciting things, and keeping it all together. These unrealistic versions of life can negatively influence the developing self-esteem of young tweens.

    It is so important to discuss these issues with our daughters. Having open conversations about the manner in which social media and media in general can influence how we feel about ourselves can be very helpful.

    In your work with teens/tweens, what have been some of the ways that parents have proactively improved communication?

    We have conducted research to examine how comfort expressing feelings to others is associated with risk for suicide attempts and engagement in self-injury. We examined these links partly as a result of doing clinical work with teens and noticing that those who were engaging in cutting and other self-injurious behaviors had great difficulty talking to their parents about their feelings. Our research found that those who have more discomfort discussing feeling with others are more likely to express suicidal ideation and engage in suicide attempts and non-suicidal self-injury.

    It is so important that teens who are struggling with negative emotions, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, and self-hatred feel comfortable talking with their parents or other trusted adults about these feelings.

    In Interpersonal Psychotherapy we teach many skills to assist teens and parents in their communications. Often when a teen is feeling dysregulated (i.e., moody, angry), conversations with parents can quickly become tense and escalate into arguments. We encourage teens use skills such as “strike when the iron is cold,” meaning when they want to broach a sensitive topic with parents, do so at a time when the parent has time to talk.

    Do you have any suggestions for parents that are trying to get tweens to talk?

    The same can be true for parents wanting to begin conversations with their tweens. Do not jump in when your child is very upset to discuss heated topics (such as grades, romantic interests, use of cell phones/social media, problems with friends, sex). Let your child know that you are there for them to talk any time, and have open conversations about the above topics when things are going well. That way, when something stressful or problematic does come up, that line of communication is already open and therefore both the child and the parent will be more comfortable discussing these matters.


    Dr. Colleen Jacobson is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY and a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Jacobson teaches courses related to mental illness, suicide, psychotherapy, and research methods at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her research and clinical interests lie in the areas of depression, suicide and self-injurious behaviors among adolescents and young adults, and her work is widely published in medical/psychology journals and texts. Dr. Jacobson has recently turned attention toward understanding how self-injury and suicide are represented on social media sites and how greater use of technology and social media among young people is affecting mental health more generally. Dr. Jacobson also practices and teaches mindfulness training as a tool to manage stress, depression, and anxiety.  


    Polanco-Roman, L., Moore, A., Tsypes, A., Jacobson, C., & Miranda, R. (2017). Emotion reactivity, emotion expressivity, and future suicidal ideation in emerging adults. Journal of Clinical Psychology, early release available on-line.

    Jacobson, C. M., Mufson, L. H., & Young, J. F. (2017). Treating Adolescent Depression using Interpersonal Psychotherapy (updated chapter).  In In J. R. Weisz and A. E. Kazdin (Eds.), pp. 140 – 158. Evidence-based Psychotherapies for Children and Adolescents, Third Edition. New York: Guilford Press.