Dr. Sam Himelstein

Dr. Sam Himelstein

Co-Founder and CEO, Family Spring, Inc.

Parents, Use ‘OARS’ to Move Closer to Your Teen

Let’s imagine a situation where your kid has just failed an important exam. A typical parent-teen conversation might go something like this:

Parent: “Are you feeling upset that you failed the exam?”

Kid shakes head no.

This might mean that they don’t feel upset. Or it could mean that they don’t want to talk about it right now. Or that they don’t have the same interpretation of ‘upset’ as you do. (Do you mean sad or disappointed or frustrated or angry?)

Let’s try the conversation again, this time using O.A.R.S. 

O stands for open-ended questions. That is, questions that can’t just be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

You might actually want to start with yes/no questions, then move on to more open-ended questions. This shouldn’t feel like an interrogation—your tone of voice and body language are at least as important as your choice of words. The point is to convey to them that you’re interested in talking with them and learning more about their point of view.

Parent: “I’d like to talk about the exam. Is this a good time?”

Kid shakes head no.

Parent: “Okay, how about after dinner, then. Would that be all right?”

Kid shrugs shoulders. 

Parent: “Okay, that’s fine.”


Parent: “How are you feeling about the test?” 

Kid: “Dunno. Pissed off.”

Parent: “Why do you feel pissed off?”

Kid: “I worked really hard and failed anyway. I’m stupid and I think I’m just gonna drop out of school.”

A stands for Affirmations. 

These are strength-based statements that help them remember to not always be critical of themselves: 

“I understand why you’re frustrated that you failed the exam, but you also showed a strong work ethic and studied more than you ever have in the past. If you keep up that effort, I’m sure you’ll keep moving in the right direction.” 

R stands for Reflective statement. 

This is when you direct the kid’s attention to something in particular, usually a goal they have. 

“I know it’s tough to fail and it makes you want to give up on school. Remember though, this is the first time you’ve put in this much effort. Your goal is to graduate high school and in some sense at least, this is really the first time you’ve tried. If you keep putting forth this much effort, what do you think the result will be?” 

Finally, the S stands for summary. 

After listening to your kid’s point of view, briefly restate what you just heard, in your own words. 

“It sounds like you’re willing to put in the effort and try again, but right now you feel tired and angry about failing the test, and you need a couple of days to chill out before we talk about this. Does that sound about right?”

Practicing O.A.R.S. will help your teen feel truly heard and understood. This sets the foundation for a healthy, authentic relationship, and it makes it more likely they will listen to you when you give them advice or need to discipline them or set boundaries on their behavior.

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