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The Art of Talking With Teens

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I know how vexing and charged the topic of getting your teen to talk and open up is because I have a teen and tween of my own.  Staying close to your child and tuned into their world is a much more delicate balance than it once was.   When once your child would get in the car and tell you all about their friends, what they have for homework that night and anything random that might have popped into their head, they now tell you they need their privacy and don’t really want to share with you. It can feel both hurtful and disappointing.  I love the analogy Dr. Lisa Demour, author of the book Untangled uses to describe the change in the relationship, she says, “In your child’s teen years you are now a brussel sprout, when once you were a jellybean.”  I don’t know about you, but I really miss the jellybean days!

Talking to your teen now requires an understanding of the developmental stage that they are going through, what they need from you as a parent/caregiver and some strategies to help them open up and share. The “do it because I said so” approach to parenting is no longer an option, it just backfires.  By testing out a few new strategies you may find the door to conversations crack open again and possibly more often. 

STAY CALM

Staying calm is easier said than done!  If what you really want is a child that trusts, respects, and confides in you it is essential that you do not respond out of anger by yelling, using putdowns, expressing disappointment or frustration. 

You must remember that you are the adult and have more experience self-soothing and calming yourself by doing such things as taking a break or using breathing to regulation your emotional state.  If you respond in a reactive state your child will feel attacked which will induce a fight or flight response in your child.

When you do respond, start with empathy (even if it does not seem rational at the time) and validate their feelings and desires so your teen knows that you hear, see, and understand them. Empathy might sound like starting a conversation with, “Wow, it sounds like you were feeling nervous about the test” when you learn that your teen cheated on a test, instead of “I cannot believe you did that!” It’s important to connect before you say or do anything else because if you don't, you are putting them on the defensive and they won’t be open to hearing what you have to say or problem solving with you.  This type of reaction will guarantee that your child will not only withdraw from conversations with you, but also not feel safe to share personal things in fear of rejection or punishment. 

LISTEN

Sometimes the best way to start a conversation with your teen is to actually say nothing.  Crazy, huh? Even though it can be hard to zip your lip, do not interview your child the minute you see them.  Stay present and wait until they open the door to dialogue. Asking direct questions often will create a pressure to share and make your teen withdraw and possibly shut you out.  It is much more effective to sit back and be ready to listen.  Many people, like myself, have a hard time not filling dead air.  But the payoff can be huge.  Things may come up that you may have never considered, so follow their lead.  

When your teen does start to talk, use your active listening skills and reflect or paraphrase what they are sharing and empathize with how they might be feeling.  This will let them know that you hear and understand them.  And if they share something that is shocking or alarming focus on staying calm and regulating your emotional reaction and simply nod your head while thanking them for sharing.  (You will probably need time to process the new information, calm down, and come up with a response that will keep the door open to more dialogue on the topic.)  

ASK CURIOSITY QUESTIONS

Sometimes it can feel like you have to tiptoe around your teen to get them to share with you. When you do feel the need to explore, be mindful of what and how you ask questions.  Asking in a way that feels safe and not perceived as threatening is essential to getting your teen to talk.  Using curiosity questions gently opens the door to conversation without putting your teen on the defensive. 

If a teen has not done their homework most parents typically ask, “Did you get your homework done?”  Instead, try using a curiosity question that might sound like, “So, what is your plan for getting homework done tonight?’ This communicates faith in your teen’s ability to complete homework and be responsible and allows them to reflect on what they need to do and how they will do it.

An alternative curiosity question might be, “Is there anything I can do to be helpful so that you get your homework done before 10PM tonight?”  If they are unsure, it is more likely they will ask for help when you start with a curiosity question. You could also follow up with, “Is there anything I can do to be helpful so that you get your homework done before 10 PM?”  If they are unsure, it is more likely they will ask for help. 

Talking to teens is no easy task! There is no way to completely eliminate the “eye rolling”, slamming doors, or stomping off in a huff. But being mindful of how you approach dialogue with your teen by employing listening, connecting and questioning skills (+ a whole lot of patience of course) you will increase the likelihood that they open up and share their world with you and come to you with some of the challenges they face.

 This article was originally written for The Committee For Children Blog