There’s so much going on in your teen’s head and heart—but that doesn’t mean you’re hearing about it. When our darling little kids become adolescents, parents can feel that there’s a wall between us and them. We care so much about what’s going on inside them, but they may be reluctant to share.
This is developmentally normal. Much of the psychological work of being an adolescent is figuring out who you are as an individual, as distinct from who you are in your family. It’s appropriate that teens look out into the world more and turn toward relationships with their peers.
That doesn’t mean parents don’t have a role. It just means that our role has changed, and our communication approach may have to change too.
Think about how parents tend to talk to kids. Much of the time we’re asking them to do something (take out the trash, finish their homework, practice piano, work on that college application). Or we’re trying to get through that wall by prying information out of them (“How was your day?” “Is there anyone you’re interested in?”) Or we’re offering advice, suggestions, guidance. We know our kids so well, we worry about them, we want good things for them, we know what the world is like and what steps need to happen…there’s just so much we need to convey.
All of that is well and good. Running the house, setting expectations, providing structure and boundaries, sharing our knowledge and experience—all of those are important parts of parenting. But those kinds of communication are really us talking at them. To learn about kids’ minds and hearts, we have to make sure we also talk with them. Or, better, just listen.
The key to getting kids to open up: Be curious (but not pushy).
Here are some things you might try. None of this will work all the time—teens are still teens. 🙂 But these make real conversations more likely.
Wonder about what is going on in their world and in their heads. What do you think might be going on in there? What clues can you pick up from your kid’s mood and behavior? Sometimes, when your child seems relaxed and possibly receptive, ask about it. (Pick one topic, not a series of them all at one sitting.) “What are you enjoying these days?” Or “How are people changing in your friend group as you’re getting older?” Or “Do you still like science as much as you used to?” Or “What are you most looking forward to about this summer?”
Don’t make it an interrogation. No one likes to be bombarded with questions, so don’t get carried away. The goal isn’t to uncover information, but to open space for a real connection with your kid.
Ask playful questions that give glimpses into their worldview. Try things like “If you could be a character from any movie, who would you be and why?” “If you could live for two months in any other country, where would you go?” “If you had to spend a year on a deserted island and could only bring 20 songs, what would you choose?” (If your teen asks you the same question in return, that’s awesome—now you’ve got a real conversation going.)
Tell about difficult times in your own youth. Teens often think that parents “just don’t get it.” But you were a teenager once, and you had your share of crushes, social snubs, disappointments, confusion, and heartache. Talking about those painful or awkward times shows that you do have some idea what it’s like. Showing your vulnerability makes it more likely that your child may reveal his (today or some other time). You don’t need to give a lot of detail (unless your kid asks). Just say something like “In 10th grade, I had a crush all year on Kathy Jones, and she didn’t even know I existed.” Or “When my first boyfriend broke up with me, I felt like I was going to die. I didn’t think I would ever love anyone again.” I can almost guarantee you’ll get your teen’s attention, and you may also get follow-up questions or comments.
Use leading openers that don’t demand a reply. “You seem blue today. If you’d like to talk, I’m all ears.” “I heard something yesterday about teens dealing with y. I wonder if anybody at your school is dealing with that.” “When I was your age, I used to worry about/feel embarrassed about/ be confused about z.” Just put the statement out there and see whether your kid picks up the ball.
Stay calm and open-minded. It’s quite possible that your kid may say something upsetting: something going on at school that’s a problem, an opinion very different from your own, behavior that you don’t approve of. Breathe. This is your chance (challenging as it may be) to prove that you can listen without freaking out. Even if your impulse is to jump in with your own reaction, do your level best to stay curious about what this is like for your child. Try to let go of judgment and just be present. You might reflect what you hear, or hear being implied. “Wow, that must be hard/fun/exciting/painful/confusing.” Or maybe “I didn’t know that” or “I’d love to hear more about that.” Then wait with calm interest to see whether she adds more.
Don’t offer suggestions and solutions. Unless you’re specifically asked for advice, stay with being curious about your kid’s view. Is x even a problem for him? Partly you want to just listen. But also, you want to convey that your child is capable of solving problems on his own, that you’re confident he can handle things. By all means offer to be a consultant if he’d like, but as much as possible let him figure things out for himself. (Even if that means he doesn’t always get it right.)
Follow your kid’s lead about how much is too much. Pay attention to words and body language that say she’s not in the mood or is done talking. Pushing for more will cause her to shut down. Instead, savor the occasional small insights into her thoughts and feelings and hope that your calm acceptance will encourage her to open up in the future.