We all want our teenagers to open up and talk to us, but it is often easier in concept than in execution. After spending my career working with teenagers, raising my own, and in my current role as the Dean of Students at a top independent school, I have a couple of insights that might help.
1. Stop talking so much! Most of us talk at our kids way too much and frankly, after the first sentence or two, they are tuning out most of what we are saying. Try allowing some silence and see what unfolds. Ask a question and then wait for the answer without filling up the silence with sub-questions like, “are you going to answer me?”
2. Keep a passive expression on your face. Expressions of shock, dismay and disapproval will shut a conversation down. This is true even if your teen’s intent actually is to shock you. In order to keep the conversation going, use body language that shows you are listening and interested, but not reacting. Nodding your head in gentle assent is usually a pitch-perfect reaction.
3. Resist taking action on what your teenager may share with you. Often, they use hyperbole so you can “get” the depth of their feeling, but after they unload, they are often ready to let go of what was bothering them. If you call the school about their unfair teacher, or call a parent because of a mean friend, you make it very hard for your teenager to continue to confide in you. They will resist using you as a sounding board if they believe you will try to step in and fix their problems.
4. Offer up no advice unless asked. All of us know how it feels to get unsolicited advice when we are seeking out an ear rather than an opinion.
5. Don’t take it personally if your teenager rebuffs your follow-up interest in what they shared a month, a week, or even a day ago. They may have moved on and wish you would or they just aren’t in the mood to talk about it anymore. Drop it for now and give them the time and space to reach out to you again.
6. Timing can make a big difference. Car rides, sharing a late night snack in a darkened kitchen, shooting hoops in the driveway, or roaming the aisles of the supermarket can all be low key times to have valuable conversations.
7. Remember we all have busy lives, our kids included. Try not to be so harried that your teenager feels like their need to talk would infringe on your tight schedule. If at all possible, take the time to listen because no matter how independent they become, no one ever replaces a great talk with mom or dad.