Inside: They used to rush through the door to tell you about their day, but now getting your teen to talk is like pulling teeth. Here’s a different approach that may get your teen to talk again!
Getting teens to talk to you can be hard!
In my perfect world, my two teens would come home from school, sit at the countertop and tell me about their day. I would hear who is dating whom, how each test went, when the upcoming school play is, and every other little detail. I would chime in here or there with sage words of advice or stories about “when I was their age…..
It would be delightful.
Now, if you actually are the parent of a teenager, you know how far off from reality I am.
What actually happens in my home?
My daughters come through the door, grab a snack and head off to their rooms to either change for a practice or do their homework. If I happen to be in the kitchen, I spit out a few questions like “How was your day?” or “Was that science test as hard as you thought?” or maybe “What time do I need you to pick up again?” From that I usually get a series of one-word answers, such as “fine” or “good” or “six.” And then they’re gone.
I even tried one of those “50 questions to get your teen talking” lists. All it got me was a series of eye rolls.
It’s hard not to take the brush off personally and wonder where you went wrong. It’s difficult not to wax nostalgic about that kid who used to talk for hours telling you every detail about Minecraft or a new friend at school.
But science and hundreds of parenting experts can explain this phase of adolescence.
According to Newton’s third law, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means, the harder we push our kids to talk, they equally, if not more so, will shut down.
Why is it so hard getting your teens to talk?
Because parents are hard-wired to support our offspring, that means we want to know what is going on in our kids’ lives so we can help them. Teenagers, on the other hand, want nothing more than to be independent. Two opposing actions create enough friction for a nuclear meltdown.
Why is it so hard for teens to answer a few simple questions though?
Despite our best claims to be non-judgmental when our teens tell us something, we’re not and they know it. If they have behaved badly, we’re disappointed. If they put themselves in dangerous situations, we worry. And they hate when we worry.
Additionally, teens have a sixth sense when parents ask questions that are too specific. Most shut down when a parent starts poking around about friendships or things that happen at school. Many teens like to keep their home life separate from their school/peer one. Sometimes they just don’t know how to express their emotions about something they’re not even sure how they feel about yet.
So, how does a parent get a teen to talk during these challenging teen years?
Recently a friend shared a trick that is so simple, but so brilliant. She explained how her 14-year old son was experiencing a difficult transition into high school. His friends were in different classes and activities, and he felt isolated – or so she thought because he refused to discuss it despite repeated attempts. Her concern grew as her son spent more and more time alone in his room.
She monitored his social media usage. She asked open-ended questions. She tried to find out more about her teen’s life and why he was upset, but she got nothing.
One day, my normally type-A friend asked her son a simple question: “Do you want to go to the arcade?” She knew he loved to play video games and she just wanted to see him smile again.
At first, he hemmed and hawed, but eventually relented.
During that time that afternoon, she did not inquire about school or his feelings. She did ask, “Hey, show me how to shift in this race car game,” and she did say, “I’m going to kick your butt in Ms. Pac Man,” but nothing about his friendships or behavior.
Over a burger and fries later that day, her son said, “Thanks for this Mom. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
She said, “Me too. I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
Over the next few weeks, she continued to avoid the topic she wanted to know most about, and instead the only questions she asked were if he wanted to do something with her.
“Hey, do you want to go grab a coffee?”
“Can you come to the store with me?”
“Do you want to go pick out your new soccer cleats?”
And on each of those interactions, she received a little bit more information. She found out her son was lonely and a bit intimidated by the difficulty of his new classes. He was a little hurt that his friends from middle school didn’t include him in a few group outings, and he mentioned a girl several times in passing.
Instead of pressing on any of those issues, she only nodded her head or said things like, “I can see why that would bother you.” She recognized that her son was not looking for her to fix anything. He just needed someone to share his pain. The hope is that by her making herself available without judgment, when he may be in serious trouble, he will know she is there for him.
Yes, getting your teen to talk meant not talking yourself…
Could it really be so simple to get your teen to talk?
Impressed with the depth of knowledge my friend acquired, I felt compelled to try it myself with my own teens. I had some concerns with one of my daughters on a few things happening within her friend-set, but she shut down anytime I brought it up. One time she even yelled, “I don’t want to talk about it with you!”
It was time to try a different tact. For one week, I didn’t ask a single question about the situation with their friends.
Instead, I asked:
“Do you want to go to Starbucks”
“Can you help me pick out an outfit for this dinner I have to go to?”
“I have to go get some new makeup, do you want to come with me?”
And slowly, but surely, she opened up. I didn’t ask any questions. I became comfortable with awkward silences. I tried not to offer advice unless prompted. I painstakingly withheld my opinions, even when it about killed me.
But here and there I received a few nuggets of information – enough to make me feel better about the situation with her friends and more comfortable with our lines of communication.
It wasn’t the perfect close relationship I envisioned, but I feel like I was able to dial back being so interrogative, and we could enjoy each other a little more again.
Recognizing that my teens wanted control and privacy over their lives was difficult, but getting them to talk was more important.
The harder I tried, the worse our relationship became. However, I came to realize that controlling the information they provided to me, even controlling their attention at me, was about the only power they felt they had in our relationship.
When I diffused the power struggle, my daughter had the ability to determine if, when and where she would discuss these issues.
It was up to me to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t matter when they talk to me; what matters is they keep talking to me.
That meant I needed to relinquish some control of my own, remove some unnecessary boundaries, and put her in control of how we were bonding.
But I tried to look at the bigger picture. More communication meant I could keep better tabs on her mental health. It meant I could have more open and honest communication with her about issues such as peer pressure or alcohol or bullying. It meant she could come into her own identity without (hopefully) feeling like she needed to rebel against me.
I still miss the time that they wanted to share every detail about their day when they talked so much I wanted to hit “mute,” but relinquishing some control and getting my teens to spend some quality time with me, well, that’s pretty great too.
Other Tips that May Help Get Your Teen To Talk
- Stay Available: Just because your teen stays in their room all the time, doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Try to be in the common area of your house whenever possible, close your computer when they enter the room to show you’re willing to talk, and encourage them to get out of the house with you whenever possible.
- Keep Childhood Habits but in a More Grownup Way: During these years, SO much is changing for our teens. They can feel like nothing is constant or reliable anymore. That is why they need us to maintain a few of those comforting rituals and fun family traditions. It provides a sense of security and stability for them.
- Focus on the positive: It’s so easy to worry that your teen is going down the wrong path and become fixed on one negative aspect of their lives, instead of seeing all the wonderful things they accomplish over time. We should acknowledge the mistake, but focus on the growth.
- Hold the Judgement. We get it. It’s hard. SO HARD. But think of when you give an opinion or tell a story and you get shot down the whole time. Try to just nod and let your teen talk. There will be time for you to give your opinion, but it may not be when they’re putting their heart out on the line.
- Model Good Communication Habits:Whenever possible, include your teen into problems you may be having and then show them how you are handling it. This may be in an email correspondence at work, how you talk to your partner at the dinner table, or how you phone the plumber to talk about a shoddy job. They may not act like they are listening, but trust us when we say they are hanging on to every word.
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