Establishing Open Lines of Communication with Teens

Any adult who has a teenager in their life knows that it is not an easy task to get them to talk and share. Conversing with a teen can be filled with one-word responses and plenty of eye-rolling. If you want to try to establish those important open lines of communication, then try these tips:

Get to know them. Adults often want to talk to teens about school or their peers or possible trouble they need to avoid, but many times, teens feel like we are invading their privacy or being pushy. You might find a more willing conversation partner, if you talk about more general ideas or current events. You will learn a lot about them by hearing their opinions and it gives you the opportunity to share your values without a lecture focused at them. If you take the time to listen when they are talking about more generic topics, they will be more likely to open up to you about real issues affecting their lives.

Empathize. Adolescence is a time full of BIG changes, decisions, emotions, and experiences. As a result, the teen in your life is going to, at times, act overly dramatic, blow things out of proportion, and cry or get angry at seemingly insignificant things. It’s normal and occurs because of the hormones and changes your teen is facing. If you trivialize their feelings or tell them they shouldn’t feel a certain way, then they will feel misunderstood and clam up. Try validating their feelings (“yes, it would hurt my feelings, too, if someone had done that to me”) until they calm down. You can only have a meaningful conversation when your teen is calm.

Make time. Understand that teens open up when they feel comfortable, not necessarily at convenient times. You cannot schedule a child like a meeting. Many times, teens will bring up something that is bothering them spontaneously. Do not dismiss those opportunities because you are too busy. If they feel brushed off, they may not open up again. The warmest and most rewarding conversations develop when a teen wants to talk and you make time for them.

Adjust your role. When children are small, we need to give them specific directions and commands. But as children become teenagers, our role as a parent or teacher should evolve to guidance and coaching. If you try to tell a teen what to do, they will avoid conversations with you. It’s far more effective to ask them open-ended questions that help them come to a solution on their own.

Listen. Allow teens to speak without interruption. Listen to what they have to say without judgment. Sometimes a way to show you are listening and understanding them is to paraphrase what you think they said, “It sounds like you feel…” You don’t have to agree with their opinion to try to understand it.

Be open-minded. The fastest way to get a teen to clam up is to express disapproval, judgment, or shock. Because adolescents are developing independence, they often “try on” different identities. As a result, teens are likely to throw you a curve ball during your conversations, perhaps stating something against your values just for shock value. Don’t jump to argue or defend the things that might be a little tough to hear, as it will likely change again in a couple of weeks. It’s better to simply ask some follow up questions about what inspired their way of thinking. Teens also tend to have big ideas that are completely unrealistic. However, putting down their idea can make them withdraw. Instead, respond with curiosity. You don’t have to say you think it’s a great idea, but you could ask them why they like the idea, or how they plan to accomplish it. Asking lots of open-ended questions shows interest in your teen and also helps them come to a better decision on their own.

Share. Adults need to be willing to talk about their own experiences and opinions, if we want the teens in our lives to share theirs. It’s helpful if we can discuss how our own life experiences have changed our opinions or values over time. Try to avoid sweeping generalizations. When you share, try to be very transparent in distinguishing between facts and your opinions. These strategies will help convey open-mindedness to teens.

Try to appeal to common values. If you need to discuss a loaded topic with your teen, such as alcohol use, sex, or other risky behavior, then try to put it in terms of their overall happiness and safety. In other words, you’re telling them about the risks because you want them to make decisions that will benefit them. Show that you care about the teen’s health, wellness, and success, and they might be more willing to hear what you’re saying.

Be balanced. Show that you are a reliable source of information about controversial subjects by providing unbiased information. For example, you might acknowledge the reasons why people choose to use alcohol and drugs, as well as the reasons that people choose not to. Offer specific research or scientific facts if you have a point you want to make.

Roll with resistance. Recognize that your student might disagree with you and that some conflict is natural. You are not identical to each other, nor should you be. Reframe conflict as an opportunity to listen to each other about your experiences and learn from each other.

Body language is important. Even positioning yourself in a more open stance such as arms relaxed and body leaned forward can help a teen feel like you are open to his or her thoughts and ideas. Sometimes we have gut reactions to things and that is okay, but it’s important to be aware of what your face or body language is communicating.

Avoid a debate. Sometimes conversations can become debates. If you sense that your student is getting defensive or combative, you can suggest temporarily stopping the conversation and say that you want to think things over a bit more and continue the conversation at a later time.

Final thoughts…

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 teens in your life. If a teen’s communication is deteriorating fast, talk with a professional and get some help.

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