Getting Your Teen to Open Up to You

Teenagers are not the easiest people to hold a conversation with. While it’s very normal and common for teens to separate from their parents, it can be frustrating and hurtful for parents when teens are distant or withdrawn. Parents often want to talk to their 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.

Despite all of this, there are actions parents can take to encourage their teens to open up to them and have meaningful conversations. Here are tips to create connected communication with the adolescents in your life:

Show interest. Listen more than you talk. Listening is the key to building and maintaining a healthy, open relationship with your teen. Teens are best drawn into conversation when parents ask questions about their opinions instead of being lectured. Give your teen respect and your complete attention when you are having a conversation. Ask questions to show that you are listening and to make sure you understand their opinion or the whole story.

Get to know them. 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 teens are talking about more generic topics, they will be more likely to open up to you about real issues affecting their lives. So, when you’re driving in the car or sitting around the dinner table, try throwing out a couple of conversation starter questions:

  • What do you think about (insert latest story from the news)?
  • If your friend always forgets to bring his lunch to school, should other kids always share with him or her?
  • What are some things that you don’t need, but you’re really happy that you have?
  • Where would you like to live some day? Why?
  • What are some things that you like or don’t like about your friends?
  • Choose one couple you know of who you think has a good relationship and one couple who you think has an unhealthy relationship. Why did you pick these couples?
  • Do you think there is a good way to argue? Do you think there are unfair ways to argue?
  • If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
  • Is there ever a time that it would be OK to (insert a negative activity, such as cheat, lie or steal)?
  • What is your favorite family tradition?
  • What does it mean to stand up for yourself? When you stand up for yourself, how does it make you feel?
  • If you could make three family rules, what would they be?
  • Have you seen anyone at school stick up for a kid being teased? What happened?
  • What feeling do you think is most uncomfortable? Embarrassment, anger, fear, or something else?
  • What are some things you can do to make a difference in the world?
  • How do you make yourself face your fears?
  • What is one thing you want to achieve before you finish school?

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, your teen is likely to throw you a curve ball during your conversations, perhaps stating something against your values or just for shock value. Don’t jump to argue or defend the things that might be a little tough to hear. Your teen will likely have a new opinion in a couple of weeks. Teens also tend to have big ideas that are completely unrealistic. However, putting down their idea can make your teen withdraw. Instead, respond with curiosity. Ask some follow up questions about what inspired your teen’s way of thinking. 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 better decisions on their own. They might not act like it at the time, but your questions might lead them to a different way of thinking.

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 an honest look at how you act and react when talking with your teen. If you talk too much, act judgmental, get upset by things your teen says, or imply your teen is wrong, your teen will withdraw from you. If a teen’s communication is deteriorating fast, talk with a professional, such as a family counselor, and get some help.

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