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Getting teens to talk

If you have a teenager in your family, chances are they are less chatty with you than when they were little. Before, they used to tell you every detail of their day whether you wanted it or not, but now you ask about their day and they say it’s, “Fine.” A normal part of kids growing up is that they create some distance from their parents or caregivers, but that doesn’t mean it feels good to experience the distance. If you miss talking to your teen, don’t worry, there are things you can do to make conversation more likely.

Spoiler alert: none of them involve convincing them you are cool. I’m sharing what I’ve learned from working with countless teens who, believe it or not, like to talk when they want to talk. I hope these tips help you have more satisfying interactions with your teen.

Giving teens opportunities to talk

As adults, many things affect whether we feel like talking—our stress levels, the environment we’re in, the trust we’ve built with the people in our lives. The same is true for teens. Try not to take it personally when they don’t want to talk. Instead, control what you can control by creating favorable conditions for talking.

  • Provide routine opportunities to talk. This could look like a regular game night or dinner out. It could be a bike ride or a sport you both enjoy. The key is to have a set schedule you can count on. One-on-one time with teens is just as important as it is with younger kids. Getting time with each of your kids each week is recommended.
  • Keep your promises. If you say you're going to do something for or with your teen, do it. This helps them trust you and makes them more inclined to keep their promises.
  • Take the pressure off. Some teens find eye contact awkward, especially if they want to talk about something important or uncomfortable. Talking in the car, on a walk, while playing a game or doing an activity can help kids open up when being face to face feels too intense.
  • Embrace technology. Instead of blaming phones for coming between you and your teen, use them to stay connected. Communicating digitally can be a less intimidating way for some teens to talk with parents. Don't dismiss this type of communication. It can open the door to face-to-face conversations later.
  • Take a genuine interest in their interests. You don’t have to become fluent in the language of their latest hobby or media, but really listen when they talk about it and ask questions to find out what they like about it. You’ll learn more about your kid as you learn about their interest.
  • Create shared language. Establishing a code word or some kind of shorthand for tough topics or feelings can be a helpful way for teens to communicate they need help or want to talk.

Giving teens respect in conversation

Once you have your teen’s attention, it can be tempting to steer the conversation toward what you want to say or what you want to know. Resist the urge to control the conversation. Do your part to have a respectful conversation and remember that you’re talking with someone you love and care about very much.

  • Be present and focused if your teen does start talking. Show interest by putting your phone down, nodding and leaning in. The biggest obstacle teens say keeps them from sharing is feeling like their parent isn't listening.
  • Ask helpful questions. Stick to open-ended questions, not questions looking for a predetermined answer. Ask if they want support or if they want help problem solving and honor their answer. Do not ask questions like, “Did you try this?” “Why didn’t you do it this way?”
  • Validate them as much as you can. Teens want parents to know that being a teen is really hard. It always has been hard, but modern technology presents challenges parents didn't face. Let them know their experience is valid.
  • Listen more than you talk. Reflect on what they're telling you without trying to rescue or problem solve.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's OK if uncomfortable emotions come up in conversation. It's an opportunity for parents to model regulating their own emotions. If you need to take a break because you are too overwhelmed to be present, take a break. Encourage your teen to ask for what they need in conversation.
  • Share your experience if they ask. Parents sharing their experience from when they were teens can be helpful if it's used to build solidarity and trust and to affirm their child. It can be damaging if it is used to invalidate or minimize their teen's experience. Also, encouraging reckless behavior is not helpful.

Giving teens safety and space

Just as important as giving kids opportunities to talk is accommodating their need for space. As they grow into who they are becoming, you can encourage them to be safe while also giving them room to learn and make mistakes.

  • Let them come to you to discuss important topics unless it’s a matter of urgency or safety.
  • Give them choice. If you are concerned about their safety or have an urgent matter to discuss with them, still give them some control about the timing or setting of the conversation. For example, you could ask whether they would rather talk in the moment or later in the day, in the car or when you get home.
  • Honor their sharing. If you have offered a way for your teen to share with you without consequence (e.g., Call me if you're at a party and there's alcohol and I'll come get you and you won't be in trouble.), follow through with your promise. Your first response to them should be "I'm so glad you told me." Then, you can discuss what happened, what expectations were broken and what you want to happen next time. Do not punish them for sharing with you.
  • Ask yourself whether you need to know. Parents deserve to have information that can help them keep teens safe, but they aren't necessarily entitled to all the information they want from teens just because they want it. Be honest with yourself about whether the information you want from your teen is for their safety and wellbeing or just because you want to know.
  • Give them grace. Remember that their brains aren't fully developed until their mid-20s and they will make mistakes. We all do.

Raising teens is not for the faint of heart, but it can be very rewarding. Take as many chances as you can to get to know who your kid is becoming by creating plenty of opportunities for conversation, being a good conversation partner when they talk and giving them supportive space to grow. You’ve got this.

Clinical Psychologist, Developmental and Behavioral Health