How to Get a Teen to Talk about their Feelings?

During adolescence, it is fairly typical for a child to confide less in adults and more in friends. While adults should not overreact to this normal developmental process, there are definitely ways to develop and maintain positive, open, and effective communication with youth. When teens and adults communicate better, daily conflicts can be solved more easily and teens are more likely to share their feelings. If a teen doesn’t feel like their parent listens, or they feel like their parent criticizes what they say, they will withdraw. You must take the time to demonstrate that you are a safe person with whom your teen can share.

Here are several tips for keeping the lines of communication open:

Active listening. Active listening is when you are not thinking about anything other than what is being said to you. When your teen is talking to you, you should be spending time trying to understand his or her viewpoint or feelings, not trying to develop arguments or rebuttals to what he or she is saying. You do not have to agree or disagree with them; just make them aware that you understand how they feel. Stop what you are doing and look at your teenager with proper attention. Truly listening to children builds trust and lets them know that you are interested in their thoughts, ideas and feelings, even if they still don’t get their own way.

Avoid judgment. Do your best to stay calm no matter what your teen says to you. Teens love to shock people, and sometimes they say outlandish things just to see your reaction. If you tend to react in a nonjudgmental way and keep your emotions under control, your teen will feel safe to share what they are thinking and feeling. When your teen shares something, do not express your opinion or argue with them. Instead, demonstrate genuine curiosity about your teen’s ideas. Take time to listen to what they’re saying, and seek to understand them by asking follow up questions. It can be hard to refrain from expressing your opinion, but doing so will improve your communication. Respect their point of view. It is possible to disagree with your teen without putting down their opinion.

Validate feelings. If you want your teen to share their feelings, you must give your teen the opportunity to share them without judgment or interruption, and then most importantly, let them know that their feelings are normal. This is not a time for lectures or for you to teach them how they should think a different way. Do not try to explain away their emotions. Instead, simply seek to understand how your teen is feeling and, rather than offering your own opinion, reflect back what you heard them say. Your teen needs to feel like you understood them.  Reassure them that they are a wonderful person and that you can understand why they feel the way they do.

Ask open-ended questions. If you are only getting one-word responses to your questions from your teen, then you are asking the wrong questions. Probably the most important thing that parents can do to get their child to open up to them more is to ask open-ended questions. For example, instead of asking “How was your day?” which always results in a quick “fine,” try saying, “Tell me about your day.”

Find time to spend together. Obviously, you have to be physically close to your teenager for communication to occur so make sure you are spending time together. Be sure to use the time you have together to connect, for example, don’t sit at the dinner table reading today’s mail. Try getting involved in something that your teen is involved in, even if it is just attending their games. This will give you a common topic to talk about. If your schedules are hectic, schedule in time doing something your teen likes to do.

Seize the moment. Even though you should try to create times that could allow communication, do not try to schedule your teen’s conversation for a convenient time. Your best discussions will happen when your teen brings something up on their own. Stop whatever you’re doing when your teen wants to talk. It may have been difficult for your teen to find the courage to share something bothering them – turning them away because you’re in the middle of something makes them less likely to come back again. It’s worth the inconvenience to take advantage of a time when your teen is willingly opening up.

Be positive. During the time you spend together, talk about what is good in your life, even if it is trivial. For instance, you could tell them you learned something new, you like your friend’s new haircut, you’re looking forward to an upcoming event, etc. Don’t pressure anyone to converse back, just let it happen. Enjoy the time. Modeling this positive behavior for your teen will get them to start looking for the positive in their own lives – and then you’ll get to hear about it. Also, don’t dwell on mistakes, failures, misbehaviors, or something they forgot to do. Give them positive communication and talk about their successes, accomplishments, interests, and appropriate behavior. People naturally share more when conversations feel positive.

Don’t criticize or accuse. While a teen’s actions may have upset and worried you, remember that mistakes are often the best teachers. Criticism will only tear down your teen’s self-esteem. All of us withdraw from conversations when we feel like someone is accusing us of something. Do not put your teen on the defensive and they will be more likely to continue talking with you. Avoid judgments. Instead, you could ask, “how could you handle that differently next time?”

Avoid power struggles. No one needs to be “right” in a conversation. Opinions are owned by the person who holds them. Allowing a teen to own their opinions will turn a potential power struggle into a conversation where you both win and learn a little bit more about each other.

Respect privacy. Never share anything your teen tells you with anyone else. Your teen will feel betrayed if they think you are talking about them to others. Also, if you need to correct your teen, never do it in front of other people. This will break down trust. Talk to them about it later in private.

Use the media to bring up topics. Watch whatever teens are watching on TV, listen to their music, and read whatever teens are reading. Tough topics come up in the media all of the time. When you use these to talk to your teen, it takes the personal edge off, since your aren’t discussing anything that is actually happening in their lives. It gives you an opportunity to share your values and pearls of wisdom in a nonjudgmental way.

Focus on their interests. Talk to them about what excites them (e.g., music, sports, computers, dance, art, cars). Have conversations with your teen when you are not trying to make a point or to teach them something. Talk to them just to talk and to have positive verbal interaction. When a teen feels that you genuinely care about them in conversations about the small stuff, they will be more likely to open up to you about the big stuff.

Avoid talking too much. Experts recommend that parents say 50% less during a conversation with their teen than they normally do with another adult. Repeating lectures or questioning your teen excessively will result in your teen turning a deaf ear to you.

Admit your mistakes. It’s important to admit when you’re wrong and apologize for what you might have said or done. It builds trust and teaches teens that it is okay to be wrong and how to apologize.

Tell them you love them. Parents, don’t forget to tell your kids that you love them. Yes, they may roll their eyes at you or act like they don’t care, but they do.

Alternate Way to Open Communication

Sometimes, face-to-face communication can be too intense for teens. Being bombarded with questions over dinner, or confronted with uncomfortable lectures about drugs or dating can cause teens to withdraw. An alternative is to give your teen a journal or notebook, and tell them that they can write down any questions or concerns they have and hand it to you. A journal provides your teen with time to think about what they want to say, without feeling like they’re on the spot, and avoid looking in your eyes if they need to talk about something embarrassing. Additionally, it gives parents time to think about their response. When your teen gives you the journal, try to write your response within 24 hours.

Final Thoughts…

As teens travel along the road to adulthood, they can be so intent on proving their independence that they clash with everything adults say. Opening lines of communication takes time and patience, so go slow and don’t let setbacks derail your efforts. You will see slow changes over time. If you’re not seeing any progress, start by taking a good look at how you act and react when talking with the teen. If a teen’s communication is deteriorating fast, talk with a professional and get some help.

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