During adolescence, children become more persistent about making their own decisions — decisions that not only have to do with the clothing they wear, but who they date and which vocation they choose. Though you wish they would solicit your ideas about such pertinent topics, you may find that your teen’s decision-making continually excludes you and is often motivated more by their peers and their own insecurities.
Despite the aforementioned, you still can have meaningful conversations with your teens. With effort and strategy, you can get them to open up to you, or at least be open to opening up.
Be physically and mentally present
Put your phone away, place the mail to the side, and position yourself appropriately when it is time to talk with your teen. Such posture signals that you are prepared to listen, and it creates a safe and inviting space for your child to enter conversation. Show up mentally for your teen as well. When you have much to do, the pressures of the day can impact conversation. Tapping feet and fidgety fingers can signal that you have more important things on your plate, which can shut down conversation even before it starts. To quiet your mind, focus on your breath and meditate for one minute and/or pray for peace, so when you do engage in conversation, your teen sees your ability to handle whatever he or she has to tell you for however long it takes.
Ask follow-up questions
Teens often give one-word answers to questions like, “How was school?” because they are old enough to know the routine of such exchanges. In order to show them that you really want to know their answers, ask clarifying questions. For example, if your teen says his day was “OK,” you could ask, “What made it just OK? What would have made it better?” Also inquire further about judgments he makes on certain things (boring) or people (mean) by asking for evidence to support his conclusions. Such clarifying questions make more room for conversation and allow you to gain further knowledge about your child’s thinking.
Paraphrase, don’t preach
Remember that teens tend to talk more when they feel listened to instead of judged, encouraged instead of commanded, complimented instead of criticized. One skill that tends to lead to these positives is the skill of paraphrasing. Restating your teen’s thoughts and reflecting his feelings not only helps you better process what was said, it also shows that you understand your teen’s comments. To better understand the benefits of paraphrasing and see it in action, peruse educational videos, such as the Kit Welchlin Communication Strategies video blog.
In addition, refrain from giving advice right away. Advising your teen after his first response is a sure-fire way to take the focus off your teen and put it on you, which means your teen will likely stop talking. So the next time, allow him or her to just talk. Then paraphrase. Ask if your paraphrasing was accurate. If the cycle continues, you have found success, and after several conversations you will have learned enough about your teen to offer tailored advice.
Be respectful, but honest
Finally, some teens may choose to remain silent regardless of your eye contact, questioning, and/or paraphrasing. Respect their right to keep quiet. Forcing a teen to talk can often lead to anger and bitterness, which can damage the overall relationship. It may just take time for them to see that you will be consistent with your efforts and really want to know how they feel. Therefore, when you feel frustrated by your teen’s silent mode, be honest. Let him know how you feel. In a calm, but firm tone, you may say something like, “When you choose not to talk to me, I feel hurt, because it makes me think you don’t trust me or value my opinion.”
Then make a specific, reasonable request: “In the future, I would like for you to tell me at least two things that happened at school.” Approaching your non-communicative child with an I-statement is less challenging than further questions about why he won’t speak with you, and it gives your teen insight on how his shutdown affects you, which models the exact behavior you ultimately want from your teen.