Grunts, rolled eyes, one word answers, and silence. These are some of the most common parental experiences of teenage communication.
Just when it feels like kids are getting to the age you can have more interesting and meaningful conversations with them, they suddenly stop all meaningful verbal communication.
If can be frustrating and concerning having someone in your house who only talks when they want something or to tell you you’ve done something wrong. Yet this is what it is like for many parents who have teenagers.
Getting your teenagers talking is definitely more art than science, but there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of having your adolescent house mate communicate with you in meaningful way.
But before we get into the all the tips and tricks it is important to manage expectations.
Parents need to set realistic expectations about how much verbal communication to expect from their teenagers.
Today’s parents have grown up in culture which has celebrated the confessional culture. Growing up in the era of Oprah and Gilmore Girls, personal communication has become synonymous with heart to heart sharing that reveals our deepest hopes and dreams. This has created expectations in many parents regarding communication that are not always realistic or helpful.
Communication in most relationships is predominantly superficial and transactional. A large proportion of our communication is compromised of greetings, sharing practical information, making necessary requests, or idle chatter to pass the time when together. In our close relationships, the deep sharing moments happen amidst the hours of mundane and unrevealing talk. We shouldn’t expect our teens to be different.
Teenagers are in the business of resetting how they want and need to relate to parents. Teens are developmentally driven to prove they don’t need parents to solve all their problems or validate all their thoughts. This is why teenagers spend lots of time talking with their peers.Friends become a place to share and get validation apart from mum and dad. This doesn’t mean parents aren’t important (they absolutely are), but it does mean you should expect there will be change in the amount and type of communication coming from your teenager.
It is also worth remembering teenagers aren’t always wired to self disclose a lot. As teens bodies and brains change they often struggle to express themselves. Teenagers aren’t really clear themselves on what they are thinking or feeling, so they have little of chance of always being able to articulate what is happening to someone else. Because teens have a lot going on under the surface and are unsure about what is or isn’t okay, they have to work very hard to keep a lid on everything so they look cool and in control. This makes sharing difficult because talking about things takes energy that could be spent keeping things internally under control, and not talking about it is an effective strategy for staying in control.
13 Ways To Get Teenagers Talking
So with those understandings firmly in your mind, lets get on with how to get teenagers talking
The number one reason teenagers don’t talk to parents is because they feel like their parents never listen.
Parents often complain to me that their teen never talks to them. My first response is “How often do you say nothing when you are with them?”
What I find is most parents try to get their teens to talk by talking at them. Uncomfortable with the silence, parents look for words that will convince their teen to talk to them.
This response is understandable, but counter productive.
If you want your teen to talk to you then you need to give them the chance to talk. That means you stop talking. That means there could be silence. That is okay.
When your teen does talk it helps if you listen.
Listening means gaining a clear understanding of what your teenager is saying.
Listening is not just waiting your turn to talk, or quietly formulating your next sentence. Real listening is about trying to fully appreciate what the other person is expressing and experiencing.
2. Ask Helpful Questions
The number one thing parents can do to get their teen talking is to listen. The next most important thing to do is ask helpful questions.
A helpful question is one that helps you as a parent gain a better understanding of what your teenager is talking about, and encourages your teen to share more of whatever story it is they are sharing.
Don’t ask Why? questions. Firstly being asked “Why?’ can put your teenager in a defensive mindset. Feeling like he needs to justify or explain himself, your teenager is unlikely to be very communicative.
The other reason asking questions starting with ‘why” can be counter productive is because “why” is seeking a reason or rationale of what happened. Why questions will push your teenager to try and do what they are not good at – rationalising or theorising. Much better to ask questions they are better at answering, questions that prompt to describe what is going on. To get your teen talking try asking questions beginning with “What”, “When”, “Who” or “How.”
3. Focus On Their Interests
Adolescents are self-absorbed. No secret there.
So use it to your advantage, and talk to your teen about things that matter to them. Ask them about the music they listen to, the computer games they play, and the sports they follow. Better yet don’t just ask, actively get involved in doing things with your teen that they like. You don’t have to lie and say you like things that you don’t like, but you can spend time trying to appreciate what your teen likes and enjoys about certain things.
Ask questions about what they appreciate and enjoy certain things. Ask them to show you how to do something. Compliment them on their knowledge or ability in a certain area. Watch them do what they do and use that as a launching pad into conversation after they have finished.
4. Have Regular One On One Time
In many houses teenagers are busier than their busy parents. The endless rushing to to and fro can make quality time hard to achieve.
If possible try to schedule some special one-on-one time with your teenager. It doesn’t have to be every week. It could be every month or even once a term.
Whenever it is try to make it a special time that the two of you get to do something together. It might be a shopping date, a hike or camping trip, a pampering session, a cooking or building afternoon, a dad & daughter date night, or even just a some time together playing games at home. Whatever it is, it should be just the two of you and be doing something that at your teenager enjoys.
These special one-on-one times reinforce the relational connection between you and your teenager, and create space for communication to happen.
It is important you don’t go into these occasions expecting your teenager to divulge their deepest secrets. Just make it a relaxing, enjoyable time, and if stuff comes up great. If not, you and your teen had a good time together and relationship is hopefully that bit stronger going forward.
5. Be Available
Teenagers don’t often share on demand.
Trying to get your teen to talk to you in a set 15 minute period during the day will rarely work. You can’t schedule in a meeting with your teen and expect them to give you a concise briefing of what is happening in life.
The more time you spend just being around your teenager the greater the chance you have of your teenager talking to you. This doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing waiting for you teen to spontaneously burst into conversation. But being in the same vicinity as your teen, doing whatever daily actives you need to do creates opportunity for your teen. Just hanging around the house together will provide a greater sense of emotional safety and hence increase the likelihood of them being willing to share.
It is nearly inevitable your teen will want to talk at a time that is not convenient for you. At these moments you have a choice, connect with your teen and put off whatever you had planned, or put off your teen and continue with what you have planned. If whatever it is you were planning can be done at another time consider listening to your teen, because your teen may not be willing to come back later if you put them off. Sometimes there are things that can’t be put off, when this happens make a point of checking in with your teen as soon as possible when you are free.
6. Connect Everyday
At a bare minimum try to make a point of connecting with your teen every day. Even if it is only for a short exchange, making a point of connecting everyday reinforces to your teen that you are around and that you care.
Even on the days when everyone in the family has been running around everywhere, make a point a the end of the day to say goodnight and ask about your teens day. Or if you know you won’t see your teen that night make a point to connect at the start of the day.
Part of the daily connection should be checking that everything is okay. 99% of the time your teen will give a one word answer or grunt, but don’t get discouraged. You keep connecting so the 1% of the time when it matters you are their for your teenager.
7. Share Yourself
Instead of just peppering your teenager with questions about what is going on for them, make an effort to share with your teen about what is happening in your world.
Don’t do this expecting your teen will respond with intense interest and display fantastic active listening skills, because he won’t! But it is very likely he will hear what you say, and more importantly realise over time that what you are interested in a relationship that goes both ways, rather than a relationships where you only want to know everything about him and he learns nothing about you.
Important Note: While you sharing about your life will add a great dimension to your relationship with your teenager, be careful to make sure you aren’t sharing anything to “heavy” that your teen is not ready to handle. Sharing about your life with your teen is different from sharing about your life with your best friend or partner. Share away, but make sure you are being fair and appropriate in what you share.
8. Don’t Hijack The Conversation
Conversation hijacking occurs when a parent grabs hold of part of what a teenager says. and then runs off into a story about their own experience.
You have probably been the victim of a conversation hijack. That time you were talking and someone said “Oh I know exactly what you mean. That happened to me…..” and then the offender spent the next ten minutes telling you all about their version of your story.
Hijacks usually occur when the hijacker is trying to show they understand what someone else is talking about. However what they actually convey is not empathy, but selfish disregard.
When someone hijacks the conversation the conversation is over. When parents hijack a conversation with their teenager they have ended the conversation.
If you do find your self being tempted to jump in and tell your teenager all about your experience, think twice before you speak. You already know about your experience and your thoughts on the subject, would you rather hear what you already know or here about something you don’t know from your teen?
9. Don’t Make It a Big Deal
When if comes to parent reactions most teens tend prefer a more minimalist approach from their parents.
Yes it can be exciting when your teen discloses something about what is happening in her life. But if you should ever want him to disclose something again it would serve you well to keep a lid on your reaction.
Yes it is important to acknowledge that you have heard and understood. And yes it is good to respond emphatically and mirror the positive or negative emotions your teen is feeling about the news. What is not necessary is to jump up and down and squeal with delight or scream and throw things in disgust.
Teenagers spend a lot of energy trying to keep things emotionally low key. If they associate you as someone who is going to make a big deal about everything they are likely to decide it is not worth it, save their energy and not tell you anything of importance.
10. Don’t Interrogate
No one wants to share with an interrogator. If you are prone to bombarding your teen with endless questions every time she shares something don’t be surprised if she stops sharing.
It might be tempting as a parent to know all the detail and try to make sense of what your teen is sharing, but satisfying your curiosity can feel threatening and invasive to your teenager.
Some questions are good, lots of questions not so much. If you want to keep your teen talking far better to practice “active listening” and offer comments of understanding and empathy rather than play 20 questions. Then there will be sometimes when you get what you get an have to be content to live with it. Even though you feel like you need to know more, be mindful that if you push to hard you might get a lot less in the future.
11.Don’t Convey Judgement All The Time
It can sometimes feel like your teenager is purposely trying to aggravate you! Everyday brings with it another round of the same frustrating and irritating behaviours and attitudes.
When you are going through stages of finding your teen constantly irritating, it can be very easy to for a lot of the things you say to your teen to be judgemental and critical.
If the overwhelming theme of your words to your teen involve criticism, disapproval, annoyance, or correction then an environment is created between you and your teenager that makes if very unlikely your teen will want to talk to you. When parents come across as always on their teenager’s case about then teens become very reluctant to share and often become more resistant to instruction.
If you find yourself in this pattern, try and make a list to the little things that annoy you but you can live without commenting on. While at the same time make a conscious effort to sprinkle some positives into your daily conversation.
12. Don’t Take The Bait
There will be time when your teenager will be trying to get you to react in a certain way – usually negatively. He will achieve this cunning plan by saying or doing things that he knows will get you to respond in a manner that suits his agenda.
By getting parents to snap aggressively or argue all the time, teens are creating circumstances that justify their belief system about who parents are. This belief system usually goes like “My parents don’t get me and are always yelling at me! They don’t understand me or who I am!” The more you give your teen reason to think like this the less likely he will be to willingly communicate with you.
When you notice yourself getting angry at your teen or find yourself in an argument stop and ask yourself “what did your teen do or say that triggered your response?” You should start to notice a pattern of teen behaviour or words being used that set you off. Once you have determined how your teen is getting to you, work out a way of either ignoring it or alternatively dealing with the behaviour in another way that doesn’t involve you verbally reacting at the time.
If you have a supportive partner, it might be worth talking to him or her about how your teenager presses your button and develop a strategy where they can step in when you are finding it hard to not take the bait.
This is much easier to say than to do. But with some practice and self-discipline you can chose to ignore your teenagers baiting and reduce the level of hostility and arguing
13. Pick Your Moments
Another helpful strategy is to choose when to talk to your teen. So below are some of the better times to try and connect with your teenager to increase the chances of getting some conversation going.
In The Car
If you are one of those parents who feel like your second job is being “mum’s taxi service” then you have lots of great opportunities to connect with your teen. Often you will have time in the car when there is just the two of you. There are no interruptions or family members who can overhear. Both of you are looking forward, so it is less confrontational or awkward. Make the most of these times.
Defenses are down and Bed is comforting and safe place. The environment is more conducive to communicating freely, and teens are prone to wanting to stay up later anyway. So every now and then if your teen is looking awake sit down and ask how they are going, you might be surprised at the response.
Doing an Activity
Sitting down face to face over a coffee with the express purpose of talking is not how lots of teenagers like to communicate. Focus on doing something else, anything else, and then in course of doing something together conversation can flow more freely. Shoulder to shoulder often works better than face to face.
Having proper meal times around the table that involve some sort of set sharing is a nice idea, but often treated with cynicism and resistance from teens. Sharing over food is a great idea, and it can work better with teens when the meal is casual, like grabbing take away, or eating toasted sandwiches on the couch.
When Your Teen is Ready
Ultimately your teen will talk to you when they feel ready. This will likely not coincide with when you want them to, and will most probably occur at the most inconvenient moment. But part of being a parent is choosing to prioritise our kids when they need us. So if your teen wants to talk do whatever you can to give them you full attention.
What Works For You?
If you have found a strategy that works for you and your teenager, why not share it with the rest of us in the comments section below? It might be a version or variation of something on this list or it might be something completely different. Either way let us know below.