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How Do You Get Your Teen to Talk?

We went straight to the source to find out

Holle Tubbs
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Published on: January 31, 2020

angry teen

As a youth advocate, I spend a lot of time with the adolescent set. My office shelves are lined with books full of information about teens: parenting them, educating them, entertaining them, and — my favorite — “surviving” them.

I get it. Teens can be intimidating, and a well-placed adolescent eye roll can cause even the most confident parents to lose their moxie. As comedian John Mulaney puts it: “Thirteen-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. Because they will make fun of you, but in an accurate way.”

Columnist Adair Lara addresses this disconnect more gently, speaking of her own family: “I just realized that while children are dogs, loyal and affectionate; teenagers are cats.”

Puberty is a time of transition for the entire family. Once upon a time, not even a locked bathroom door could keep your child from talking to you; now, there’s a 14-year-old in your backseat whose preferred mode of communication is memes.

Despite these challenges, it’s important as parents to establish open lines of communication with your tweens and teens. With this in mind, I went straight to the source. I interviewed several students I know and work with to discover ways to have a meaningful feline — erm, I mean teenage — conversation. 

Don’t force it

“If I could train a whole room of older people on how to have a conversation with me, I would say to give me time to warm up.” - Bella (age 15)

For parents of teens, it can be hard to no longer be the center of your child’s social world. The deep need to connect with your teen is valid, but don’t use it as a way to pressure them into conversation. This puts teenagers in a position of having to choose between their boundary (not wanting to talk now) and meeting the emotional needs of their parents. Teenagers, like everyone else, need to know their boundaries are being respected before they feel safe enough to open up.

That doesn’t mean you can’t invite your child into conversation, it just means learning what helps them respond to the invitation. Some teenagers have an easier time opening up when they’re doing a side-by-side activity, such as cooking, driving somewhere, walking the dog. Others respond to an actual invite, e.g., “Can we sit down for a second after dinner? I want to hear about your day.” 

Like with any relationship, you may need to try a variety of ways to invite your teen to talk. Don’t take this personally, and don’t give up.

Instead of: Making an emotional plea/demand for conversation

Try this: Make a plan with your teen’s input

Be available

While it’s important to invite your teen to connect, they won’t always respond (apply cats, not dogs analogy here). Remember that teens issue their invitations for connecting with you. Responding to these bids for connection requires two things: paying attention, and making space. 

Pay attention to your teen coming into the rooms you frequent (office, kitchen, bedroom), asking for help (even if it’s for something simple), making jokes; basically, any situation in which it seems they want some sort of response from you. According to The Gottman Institute, these small moments are actually “bids for connection” — a signal that your teen needs attention, affirmation or affection. 

As you begin to spot your teen’s bids for connection, do your best, whether in the car, at meal time or while working on the computer, to make it a priority to respond to them with your attention (even if it’s brief) and positivity. You can always be available for a long conversation, but it’s crucial that you let your teens know how much you value them.

Instead of: “I’m busy right now.”

Try this: “This can wait — I’d rather talk to you”. Or perhaps, “I’d rather talk to you, but I have to finish this. Can I come find you when I’m done?”

Let them teach you something

“It’s hard to want to have a conversation when the other person doesn’t think you’re capable of having an informed opinion.” - Rene (age 17)

Parents who want to connect with their teenagers often ask questions, but they may not be asking the right ones. If your teen doesn’t respond to a relational approach (“How are you?” “What did you do today?”) try an educational one: Ask a question about a subject your teenager knows about, then let them teach you. 

This can be particularly hard for parents to do; after all, your entire relationship with your child up to this point has consisted of your teaching them. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to recognize that part of raising a healthy, independent person is being willing to hear them when they share what they think. 

You don’t have to go right to the deep stuff, however; questions can range from the mundane (who to follow on Instagram) to the practical (asking about a skill they have... yes, gaming counts) to the ridiculous (my mother once asked me about my favorite television show and then sat through my lengthy eighth-grade discourse on “The X-Files”).

Whatever the topic, your willingness to learn from your teenager will model vulnerability and show them that you value their opinion.

Instead of: “How do you feel?”

Try this: “Can you show/tell me how to [fill in the blank]?”

Empathy is key

“Sometimes I’ll say something, and my mom will be like, ‘Oh, that’s dramatic,’ and it makes me not want to talk to her about it.” - Chelsea (age 13)

Your teenager’s brain is undergoing a massive transformation, with neural growth happening in the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center) way before the prefrontal cortex (the brain’s self-regulation center) matures enough to handle their emotional ups and downs. So whatever your teen is feeling, chances are they’re feeling it hard, which means that responding to them without empathy can shut down a conversation before it starts. 

The next time you think your teenager is emotionally overstating a situation, remember this: every person’s feelings are real to them. Respond with language that is empathetic, rather than dismissive or minimizing.

Instead of: “That’s so dramatic.”

Try this: “Wow, that sounds intense. I’m sorry that’s happening.”

Respond without judgment

“It’s always nice when adults don’t interrupt or shoot down what you’re saying.” - Isabella (age 15)

Judgment is a natural instinct, especially for parents. After all, you want your child to have the right information and make the right choices so they can build a healthy, happy life that’s right for them. Unfortunately, this concern can come across as disappointment, disgust or impatience.

Unless it’s a matter of safety, err on the side of listening non-judgmentally. This can be difficult, but here are some simple tips: Stay calm and neutral, don’t interrupt, ask “why?” whenever possible, and share observations, not opinions. 

Instead of: Saying things like “You should/shouldn’t,” and “That’s bad/good,” etc.

Try this: Saying things like “That’s interesting,” “Help me understand [blank],” or “What do you think about that?”

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

While talking with the students who inspired this list, the most common theme of their feedback was feeling dismissed by adults in general.

“I wish I could teach adults that, for the most part, kids and teenagers are the same as them and should be treated with respect and understanding.” - Mick (age 15)

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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