Getting Teens to Talk: 6 Tips to Loosen Lips
Parents are often told that keeping an open line of communication is the most important thing they can do to help their teenagers grow up safe and sound. But in a classic parenting conundrum, as soon as their adorable, chatty children hit adolescence, the kids clam up. It seems the last people on earth teens want to talk to are Mom and Dad. Getting teens to talk is suddenly so hard.
The little talking there is often turns into tussling—over friends, parties, and house rules. Many times, conversations feel more like negotiations, with parents cajoling their teenagers to wake up, go to sleep, finish their homework, or tackle their chores.
But all is not lost. Parenting experts say that this persistent image of the tight-lipped teenager is a myth—one that undermines parents’ relationships with their children.
Getting Teens to Talk
“Teenagers have to push us away in order to stand on their own—that is their job,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Raising Kids to Thrive. “But there is no question that teenagers want to have good communication with their parents.”
Indeed, while they may not always act like it, most teenagers care what their parents think, and they want to be close with them. “Research shows that teenagers really do want to talk with their parents—especially about the difficult subjects like drugs and sex,” says Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Yale Parenting Center. “But they think their parents are unapproachable on these topics.”
To make yourself more approachable, here are a handful of practical tips:
1. Start early.
Lay the groundwork for getting teens to talk when they are young. Parents who learn how to navigate disagreements when their children are younger will find it easier down the road to talk to older teens about even thornier issues. Resolving conflict in middle school over social media use, cell phones, and bedtime issues will set the tone for future conversations involving sex and intimacy, drugs, and alcohol.
One way to do this is to model good communication and openness in your family. “Share details about your day at dinner, tell stories about your childhood, share things about yourself that are not always good,” Kazdin says. “Be open to questions.”
Be a good listener as well. If you tune into your kids when they are young and want to talk—even if you are tired or cranky or uninterested—they’ll be more apt to open up when they’re older. “Let them tell you about their favorite TV show or the latest schoolyard squabble,” says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming Voice Lessons For Parents: What To Say, How to Say It and When to Listen. “It may be boring, but they are telling you something about their wonderful, sparkling selves.”
Parents often view compromise as a slippery slope, fearing that if they give in a little here, they’ll have to give in a lot there. But most experts say the opposite is true. If you concede a bit of ground when you can, your teens will be more amenable to do the same when it’s really important to you.
“Give up on the little things like torn jeans,” Kazdin says. “Hold a harder line on the things that will matter down the road”—bigger issues of safety and morality.
Adds Ginsburg: “There’s a fine line parents have to walk. You are allowed to insist on respect, but if you argue about every issue, you are going to push a kid away. Especially if you nitpick about the small stuff.”
3. Attend to the positive.
Negative bias in humans is strong; we’re hard-wired toward it. That’s why it’s easier for parents to focus on negative behavior and let positive behavior go unnoticed.
“Teenagers are not doing horrible things all day long,” Kazdin says. “Try to catch them in the act of being good. This is important because positive interaction leads to positive interaction. The more you do this, the more opportunities you will have to communicate effectively.”
Parents can also create positive experiences. “So much of the time we spend with our teens is negative or interrogative: ‘Did you do your homework? Did you clean up your room? How did you do on the test?’” Mogel says. “Kids need to spend time with their parents that is fun, enjoyable, chill. Play cards, cook, hike, watch TV or a movie.”
4. Talk less, listen more.
Parents naturally want to tap into their hard-earned wisdom to make their child’s life easier. But that is not what teens want—or what they need.
“The minute a teenager talks about a problem, the parent is interrupting them to offer advice or to criticize them for their poor choices or to try and fix it,” Mogel says. “But what they really want is for their parents to listen to them deeply.”
By acting as a sounding board—and not responding too quickly—you will ultimately be in a better position to offer the right counsel.
“Understand that while your teen lacks experience, he still understands his own life,” Ginsburg explains. “Treat him as the expert who can guide you on how to best advise him.”
5. Problem-solve together.
When kids are small, parents make all the decisions. But when your kids become teenagers, they should be involved. Getting teens to talk should be a give and take.
If there is a disagreement over curfew, for example, ask your teen to come up with a handful of ways to resolve the dispute. Then you do the same.
Throughout the process, when getting teens to talk it’s important to respect your teen and take her seriously. “Discuss the possible consequences and outcomes of those proposed solutions,” Kazdin says. “What’s the best outcome for both of us out of these choices?”
Don’t be afraid to quarrel, either. When your teen argues with you, “he’s learning to assert himself, to advocate for his point of view, and to learn to effectively handle disagreements,” Kazdin says. “These are valuable skills they can use to help manage relationships with teachers and peers, and to resist peer pressure. You don’t want kids who always acquiesce.”
6. Don’t judge.
Getting teens to talk may mean checking your expectations. With so much focus on achievement these days, teenagers feel judged all the time, whether it’s by their friends, teachers, or college admissions officers. They don’t want their parents piling on.
Teenagers “feel there are only two positions—success or failure—and that there is nothing in between,” says Mogel. “This level of expectation gets in the way of effective communication.”
Ginsburg agrees. “If you focus only on the behaviors that disappoint you or on their grades, they will think you see them in terms of what they produce,” he says. “Teens need to know that we stand by them no matter what and see them for who they really are.”
Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. Her articles have appeared in the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, Time and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder.