Communicating with Your Teen
Bridge the communication gap with these simple strategies for getting your teen to really talk to you.
Who's at Fault?
When my 16-year-old son, Gabe, came home from school and said nonchalantly, “I quit the lacrosse team today,” I heard the words and rushed to judgment. Yes, I was thinking about how much the equipment had cost, but I was also worried about his ability to honor an important commitment. “When you join a team you’re making a promise to be there for the other guys,” I reminded him. “It’s not fair to them.” With that off my chest, I went back to scrubbing a pot — furiously — and waited for him to respond. No such luck. He just wheeled around and left the room as if he hadn’t heard a single word.
It turns out, however, that I was the one who had shut the door on communication, according to Martha B. Straus, PhD, author of No-Talk Therapy for Children and Adolescents (Norton). “The best thing you could have said was nothing,” she says. “But if you had to answer, you should have empathized with him by saying, ‘That must have been a tough decision to make.’”
My error was expecting my son to communicate as easily and quickly as I do. “Kids’ brains have to sort through a lot of emotional reactivity before they can respond,” says Straus. The parent’s job is to get beyond what’s happening on the surface. When you do, you are helping your child learn to negotiate and compromise not only with you, but also with himself.
How can you be a better listener? Straus offers these effective strategies, which you can start using today.
Dos and Don'ts
- Talk to your teen in the morning when she’s focusing on the day ahead or isn’t fully awake yet.
- Make steady eye contact.
- Wait until you have their undivided attention before engaging in important conversations.
- Totally ban screaming, slamming doors, and swearing, or say you’ll continue the conversation only when your teen calms down.
- Ask general questions, such as “How was your day?”
- Share your thoughts as soon as you think your teen is done speaking.
- Focus most of your conversations around neglected chores, homework, or other gripes.
- Give unsolicited advice. Teenagers, as a rule, prefer to work out their own problems.
- Assume you know what they’re talking about because you were a teenager once.
- Start making light-hearted jokes when she’s talking about something that matters a lot to her.
- Ask about the reasons underlying their behavior, such as “Why did you do that?”
- Keep bringing up the same subject over and over, trying to make your point.
- Know when your child is most open to conversing with you. Adolescents tend to be more talkative at night, so take advantage of their “inner clock.”
- Stand side-by-side instead of facing your kid directly. Teens are most likely to open up when they don’t feel like you’re staring them down.
- Talk to them when they’re engaged in another activity that isn’t too distracting. They’re more likely to share their feelings while shooting hoops, having a snack, or sitting in the car (when you’re the driver).
- Let your teen vent, within reason. Train yourself to listen to the emotional subtext beneath the drama. Often what teenagers are really trying to say is, “I’m scared,” “I’m confused,” or “I’m afraid you’re disappointed in me.”
- Be specific — and take a positive approach. For example, you could ask, “What did your teacher say about your terrific term paper?”
- Allow extra time before responding. Teens need time to sort through feelings and gather their thoughts, and can’t always express them at once.
- Talk casually about a wide range of subjects — favorite TV shows, music, food, sports, and politics. The bulk of your conversations should be positive and help you get to know each other better.
- Try to acknowledge their viewpoint with statements like, “Good idea” or “That sounds like a tough problem” or “Wow! You did a lot today.” Ask if they want advice, and be prepared to take no for an answer.
- Realize that kids communicate in different ways than you did. Encourage your teen to describe her world by asking open-ended questions, such as “What did Lucy say then?” “Was Matt there, too?” or “What did you think about that?”
- Keep in mind that adolescents are sensitive, emotionally vulnerable, and easily hurt. Trying to help them lighten up with a little humor usually backfires and makes them feel that you don’t take their problems and feelings seriously.
- Understand that teens often don’t know what’s motivating them. You can help by asking, “How did that make you feel?” or “How did that strategy work for you?”
- Accept that some issues just can’t be resolved. It’s time to let go and move on.
Hannah Storm: What Works for Me
A recent Family Circle poll* showed that teens want more time with their parents — and for their parents to listen to what’s on their mind. If I sense that one of my kids needs to talk, I ask about something she’s interested in; once the conversation gets going, I can steer her toward another topic. Knowing it’s easier to share when siblings aren’t around, I grab some alone time with each child over a quick meal. And when they don't feel like talking, I hang out nearby. When they’re ready, I’m there.
* The survey was conducted on behalf of Family Circle by Harris Interactive in the spring of 2006.
WATCH THE EARLY SHOW ON CBS FOR OUR MONTHLY SEGMENT, “IN THE FAMILY CIRCLE.”
You can have the best intentions, but if you’re sending the wrong signals, kids will clam up, says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know (Jossey-Bass). Watch out for:
- Body language. Avoid gestures like shrugging your shoulders or leaning back with arms folded, which a kid is likely to read as, “I don’t accept you.” And don’t stand above her — if your teen is sitting or is shorter than you, sit down.
- Facial expressions. Beware the scowl, the raised eyebrows, the rolled eyes, the smirk. They don’t like it any more than you do.
- Nonverbal sounds. Skip the heavy sighs and groans. (You probably do it without even realizing!)
- Tone. Are you talking to your teen in the voice you’d use with a friend? Keep it casual and conversational.
- Yelling. If you’re not careful, your voice may go up a level. Moms need to use their “indoor” voice, too.
- Talking too much. Bite your tongue — literally if necessary. Count to 10 and give your child plenty of time to formulate his thoughts.
- Sarcasm. Don’t try to be funny; hypersensitive kids may feel insulted. Save your sparkling wit for grown-ups.
- Anger. Stay as relaxed as possible, even if you have to say, “I need some time to calm down — let’s talk later,” and come back when you’re cooler.
— Gay Norton Edelman