By Jerry Weichman, Ph.D.
Parent: “How was your day?”
Parent: “What did you do today?”
Does that sound like a recent conversation you had with your teen? Parents desperately want to communicate with their kids. But few know how to get a tight-lipped teen to open up. The result is a dead-end chat that leaves both parent and child feeling disconnected.
Deeper, richer conversations are possible. In fact, they’re vital to a family’s health. As a parent, you’re modeling communication skills and showing interest in your children’s lives, concerns and successes. If you think your kids would rather do just about anything than chat with you, think again. It might seem that way, but deep down, they’re hungry for your attention, and you can give it.
1. Find the right time to talk.
Bad timing can end a conversation before it’s even started. As soon as their children get home from school, parents often pounce: “How was your day?” “Do you have any homework?” “How about tests?” “How did that French exam go?” “Who’s driving you to soccer practice?” The kids haven’t even had a chance to shrug off their backpacks and they’re already being barraged with questions.
To your teen – and really, to anyone – this is overwhelming. Every day they travel from home to a non-stop world of tests, quizzes, notes, teachers, friends and social dramas. When the last bell rings, they’re catapulted back home again. Their brains are full and their stomachs are probably empty. The minute they arrive home from school, they’re subjected to what may feel like an interrogation. It’s no surprise that teens shut down or provide only monosyllabic answers.
Everyone needs transition time. How many times have you barely set foot in the house when you’re pressed to settle squabbles, help with homework or prepare dinner? What you really need is a few minutes to settle in, put your things away, wash up and put on your parent hat. You’re a much better parent when you do.
Give your teen 30 to 60 minutes to adjust when she arrives home from school or extracurricular activities. Then, when you ask how her day was, you’ll be much more likely to get a meaningful answer. If you’re still getting one-word utterances, simply ask her to give you the high points and low points of her day and in return, you will leave her alone.
2. Schedule one-on-one time.
Your teens may claim that they’d rather do just about anything than be seen with you. Don’t believe them. Regardless of what they say, they want and need a relationship with you. That’s true for all of us, no matter how old we – and our parents – are.
Whether you had a loving or difficult relationship with your mom and dad, whether they are dead or alive, there is still a part of you that even as an adult needs your parents in your life. This is even truer for teens, who need guidance as they grapple with independence, sexuality, self-esteem and heartache.
Plan one-on-one time with your child at least two times each month. Your teen may initially balk, but that’s normal. Don’t be deterred. Tell them you love them, have not spent enough time with them lately, and want to take them out. If they protest, say: “Hey, I’m sorry I love you so much. Let’s go.”
Eating a meal together is an easy way to spend time together. After all, everyone needs to eat. And a meal is a limited and brief period of time. You’re also on neutral ground and surrounded by other people engaging in conversation. When you’re alone with your teen, create some empty space for conversation to flourish. I’ve found that teens, who are used to technology’s constant stimulation, are uncomfortable with down time and feel they must fill it up. That’s exactly what you want! So as you open your menus, intentionally create awkward silence.
Your teen will feel compelled to talk, and he or she will likely provide some of the content you’ve been so eager to hear. “So I’ve got this friend …” they’ll begin. Listen attentively. Let go of any desire to control the conversation or lecture. Just listen. You’ll be astonished and delighted by how much your previously uncommunicative teen has to say to you.
3. Make the connection.
Getting blood from a stone might seem easier than drawing your close-mouthed teen into conversation. Here are three tips to help conversation flow:
- Give him some breathing space. Let your teen unwind for 30 to 60 minutes after arriving home before you ask about his day.
- Set aside time just for him. At least twice each month, spend one-on-one time with each of your children. Take them out for a meal or to a sports or arts event, or go for a walk or run together.
- Embrace silence. If you want your teens to talk, be an attentive listener. Kids are quick to fill “awkward” silences with revelations and conversation.
What techniques have you found to be useful in helping your teen open up and communicate?
Jerry Weichman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist focused solely on teen and preteen issues. Dr. Jerry is in private practice at Hoag Hospital’s Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach. Dr. Jerry is also the author of the teen self-help book How to Deal and is a noted public speaker on teen-related topics including parenting, bullying, and adolescent coping skills. To receive tips for teens and parents, visit DrJerryWeichman.com.