20 Ways to Get Your Kid Talking
Sometimes the day-to-day of raising a teenager can feel like you’re learning a whole new language—and not only are you figuring out how to say “queen” and “fire” without eliciting eye rolls, but you’re also trying to get them to actually talk to you about the strange and foreign (sometimes very scary) terrain of Adolescent Land. That can feel impossible—but it doesn’t have to be, thanks to these ideas from parents, psychologists and teenagers themselves.
1. Tear a Page from Their Own Playbook, and Avoid Eye Contact at All Costs
Kids open up more easily if they don’t feel like they’re having a Big Talk. Any or all of these are fair game:
- folding the laundry
- walking the dog
- throwing a ball or a Frisbee
- brushing hair
- giving back rubs
- sitting on swings
—virtually every parent, kid and expert we talked to
2. Stay Calm
Always be proud of them for talking to you. Don’t just say that—show it too. If your kid comes to you to talk about drinking with friends or, say, failing a math test, stay calm! Remember, the most important thing is that they came to you. Let them explain what happened, ask questions calmly, answer questions calmly and help your child see potential risks and consequences. If you jump to anger and punishment, you’re telling them not only “It’s bad that you drank or failed the test” but also “It’s bad that you told me because just like you thought, I freaked out and you’re punished.” This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be punished—they usually should—however, make sure you explicitly say that you’re proud of them for telling you, and factor that into the consequences.
—Kimberly Kleinman, clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, teenagers and families
3. Watch Their Shows
I watch TV with them—Riverdale, Good Trouble and my old shows, like Gilmore Girls and Friends. We talk about the things happening on the shows and this often leads them into a conversation about themselves or friends. Once there was an episode on Blossom that dealt with abuse, and I realized I had never talked to them about domestic violence.
—Sherry B., mother of three, 16 and 10-year-old twins
4. Start Early
“One thing I’ve found, as a therapist and as a parent, is that parents of kids entering adolescence would be like, ‘Why don’t they talk to me?’ And it’s tough, because if you haven’t built those channels from a really early age, chances are slim that your 13-year-old will magically open up to you. So I always recommend, especially starting in the toddler, preschool years, talking about your day, modeling and handling emotions as much as possible.”
5. Be Present
Make time for every story—even if you’re busy, even if the story’s not great. Listen and put down your phone. Go into their room to say goodnight. Many times, this has led to my daughter making room for me to lie down and we chat. With my son, he’s way more open if I‘m shooting baskets.
—Chrissy Triano, mother of two, 21 and 19
6. Count the Ways
I bought a legal pad and filled each line of two pages with things that I loved about my son. They were specific examples. Not just “I love you” or “You’re kind” but “I love that when someone is being picked on, you protect him and it shows me how kind you are.” I sat him down with the tablet out and said I had a list I wanted to share with him. After that, it made
it easier to talk. I could start by asking, “Which thing surprised you the most?” or “What are you thinking when you do x, y or z?” Really, he just needs affirmation.
—Laurel W., mother of two grown kids
7. Remind your kids that you love them and that you’re on their side
Use those words: “I’m on your side.” If your kid believes that, they will probably be more likely to spill. —Phoebe, 17
8. Make Yourself Human
Tell your kids about your own fallibility and poor judgment when you were a teenager. To them, you’re an adult who has it all together—and that makes them feel like you can’t possibly understand. Above all, they want to know that you understand, and you’re not just this 40- or 50-year-old sitting in judgment of them.
—Lisa Heffernan, mom of three boys in their 20s, co-author of Grown and Flown and cofounder of the website of the same name
9. Be Down for Anything
I have five kids, and three of them are teenage girls. I do not refuse any invitations that come from them. I will go running,
do ab workouts, let them paint my nails, take them for an iced coffee—no matter how tired or cranky I am.
—Wendy C., mother of five, 17, 15, 13, 11 and 8
10. Create Safe Places
Yes, research shows that eating as a family leads to lots of positive outcomes for adolescents, including more open communication. But people get so stuck on family dinner, and it doesn’t have to be only that. It can be breakfast! It can be a family road trip. It’s more about the idea that you’re all there, and you’re all comfortable and you’re all sharing. What’s worked for me is baking with my daughters. They also talk with their friends while I’m in the background baking—it’s like I’m not even there! I use what I overhear as a springboard later, when we’re alone. —Sally A. Theran
11. Shop, Shop & Shop
Don’t underestimate what a good purchase can get you. —Lori S., mother of four, now all in their 20s
12. Start a Correspondence
My son Pete is now 21, but when he was a teenager, we passed a notebook back and forth. I’d add a sports article that focused on leadership and ask him what he thought. It was always something he was interested in, so our conversations were unforced and often led to him sharing things. Sometimes I’d write a question about something specific—like something that happened in one of his games—or I would tape in a photo that I liked. Sometimes the notebook would sit on a bedside table for weeks before the other person put something in it and left it on the other person’s bedside. There was no pressure, and often it was just one-word answers. —Hailey B., mother of three, 21, 16 and 12
13. Keep It Topical
The idea of a heart-to-heart is a total non-starter for many boys. Instead, talk about what you see in the news—the kid who went to the ER because he drank too much; how drugs that teenagers used in the ’70s and ’80s are much more potent now. What you really want to do is hear their thoughts—they might say, “Oh, Mom, I’ve never seen that at my high school,” or they might say, “I see that all the time with my friends.” They’re more likely to share when it’s not about them.
14. No “Big Talks”
With boys, think of conversations in bite-size pieces. Don’t think, “We’re going to have The Sex Conversation today!” You want short conversations, and in each, establish that you’re nonjudgmental. For a conversation about sex, the bite-size piece is asking “Are kids using condoms?” and the conversation is only about birth control. The temptation is to think, “Let’s also talk about consent...let’s pile on 20 topics.” This is not the kitchen sink.
15. Listen Without Judgment
And that includes facial expressions! If you feel the urge to give advice, ask if they want it. If they say no, respect it.
—Emily S., mother of two, 18 and 14
16. Make Things Inviting
We have a couch in our bedroom. Our girls know they’re welcome to come lie on our couch anytime. They do bring their phones, but as soon as they are on the couch—there’s just something about it—they start talking.
—Danielle E., mother of two, 16 and 18
17. Tell Stories
My kid isn’t the type to tell her stories of the day. But she loves to listen and laugh, so we tell our own tales of unrequited crushes in middle school, friendships that were murky, the track meet where my body forgot how to do the high jump in front of the whole team. After I told that particular story and acted it out, my daughter opened up about her own risk-taking and embarrassing moments. It gives her the green light to share and shows that we can be vulnerable but also laugh when needed...without me feeling preachy or too “mom-ish,” as she would say.
—Kristen M., mother of two, 13 and 11
18. Promise Not to Get Mad
My parents have always told me that if I’m ever in a situation where it feels kind of dangerous, I should never be afraid to call and tell them—and no matter what it is, I wouldn’t get in trouble. When I went to a concert with my friends, one of the girls drank too much vodka before we even got there. She was throwing up and eventually passed out, and we were all so scared. We called 911, but my friend has strict parents and was afraid to tell them what happened. But I knew I could call my parents, and that felt so good. They were so relieved that I called them, and—just as they had promised—I didn’t get in trouble. —Anonymous, 16
19. Undivided Time
My son and I play cards after his sisters go to bed. I don’t force him to talk, but he’ll throw in some tidbits and I run with them. We’ve discussed my dating (I’m single), how to manage crushes and social conflicts. The undivided time with me has been key—he knows he’s “got me,” and that I’ll talk about anything he wants.
—Ali L., mother of three, 13, 11 and 8
20. Validate, Validate, Validate
Before jumping into problem solving, make sure you spend a little time validating your child’s feelings. However small the issue may seem to you, remember that it is not small to them! By simply saying back “Ugh that sucks, you must be soooo mad,” you make your kid feel like you listened, understand and care. —Kimberly Kleinman