We hear it all the time. It pays to keep close to your tween and teen. But what happens when the questions you ask result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders or non-committal “Yeahs”?
Why Is It So Hard Getting Your Teen to Talk?
There are so many reasons that your teen might not want to talk that they are almost impossible to list. Here's a few to get started, but you can probably add many more.
Things your teenage son or daughter might be thinking when you try to initiate a conversation:
- My parents always overreact
- How can you be so nosy and intrusive?
- How can you possibly imagine how my life feels
- When can I get back to my game or phone?
- How can I mention taboo subjects like sex, drugs, girl issues,
- What are the consequences for forgetting homework / not studying / detention and should I even bother to tell them myself?
- Mom always wants to get so deep, personal or bring up how we feel. Bleugh!
Winning Ways to Connect With Your Teen and Get Them Talking
With all of that going on in their heads, it's pretty hard to label why your son or daughter might not want to talk. But you can help them open up by using a few well-chosen strategies.
Timing is Everything
Take a step back and notice when your teen is most receptive to talking. When do you have time for just the two of you? Does he or she close up at family dinner, or is it too much of a rush to expect to eat together? Many parents find that, although it can be wearing to be the family chauffeur, drive time can be a good time to connect. Other teens seem to open up after dark when the day is winding down. Discover when your teen's most receptive state is, and go from there.
Try Not to Take Things Personally
If you initiate a conversation and get rebuffed, try not to take it personally. This can be hard! After many long years of parenting, we can feel tired by the day to day challenges as we reach the tween and teen years. It can feel also like our teens are constantly firing negative comments and observations at us as they test their growing independence. Like they know just how to push our buttons. Other times a teen just might be pre-occupied with his or her issues and isn't sure how to elicit help.
Getting on the defensive doesn't foster an open space for talking, Instead, be persistent in your efforts to talk but try taking your cues from them:
- If they begin talking, listen until they stop rather than jumping in with a comment or thought.
- Look for laughter, and join in. Laughter is a great tension-dissolver and connection-builder. Once you've had some fun together you might find your teen more receptive to talking, so laugh first, talk later.
- Sit and hang out. Sometimes the companionship that joining them as they play a game, watch youtube or strum a guitar acts like a conversation warmer. Once the atmosphere is warm and they feel your attention on them they may be more willing to start talking.
Avoid Asking Questions
It sounds so counter-intuitive. But if your teen has fears about your judgment, or you often get into arguments, he or she won't want to open up. So don't ask questions. If you hold back and listen to what your teen says, trust builds. Sure, you can tackle worrying topics at another time, but as your child gets started talking about their day or recent experiences it can help to just nod or say simple supportive things:
“That must have felt hard.”
“Oh no! That happened?”
Let Them Take the Lead
Teens can feel the heavyweight of control in their lives, and giving them opportunities to take the lead in how they want to spend their time with you can really help them open up and talk to you. One great way to do this – and make use fo all the previous tips we've shared in this post – is by using a tool called Special Time. This is when you allocate a certain amount of time to spend with your teen, and let them decide what to do. Regular Special Time gives opportunities to hang out casually, avoiding the need to ask questions lots of questions. Instead, you focus on their enjoyment of whatever they've chosen to do while saying very little.
It's true that teens might often rebuff even this notion of spending time like this together. But as you can see from Hand in Hand Parenting instructor-in-training Melanie Atkin's experience below, moments of Special Time can be instrumental in getting your teen to talk to you and keep your connection close.
How Special Time With My 14-Year-Old Son Leads to Better Conversation
Melanie takes advantage of alone time with her son by designating it his Special Time. Although he seems disinterested at first, we can see how she avoids taking this personally and persists with good humor. As he warms up, he tests her first and then gets playful. Finally, he asks to go get a snack in a nearby store. You can see how Melanie struggles to keep her attention focused on what she wants to do, but that when she does, her son relaxes and opens up about his day.
How I Reconnected with My Son During Drive Time
“Arranging a special time with my 14-year-old son is always difficult. He never really wants to do it, but I've found the best time for us to chat and connect was always in the car.
I decided to try to take the opportunity this evening when I picked him up from the tennis lesson. I said, “Ok we have 20 minutes just you and me. What do you want to do? You decide?”
His response? “I just want to go home”.
My response (After I took a deep breath and tried not to react)? “Ok, if that is what you want.”
By now I had started the engine and was pulling out of the car park. “What direction are we going. It's your time, and you are in control.”
Response? “I want to go home”.
Feeling ready for this, I refocused and concentrated on my breathing. “Right or left?” I asked.
Response? “Just go home!”
We're nearing the next roundabout, so I asked, “Which exit?”
His response? “First.”
My response? “Ok, great, your decision.”
Connecting with a Teen May Take Persistence
At the next roundabout, he told me “Third exit”
Hmmm. I thought we were getting somewhere. The third exit was back the way we just came. I saw he had a slight grin. I matched it.
“Back the way we came?”
His response? “Yeah.”
We proceeded to go around in a circle a few times. It felt like he was testing me and testing my patience, not sure I would continue doing as he asked. But I did (obviously making sure the whole time it was safe – luckily the roads were very quiet). It ended in laughter and after a few minutes of this, he finally asked to go to the shop before we went home.
As we wandered around the shop, I found it hard to let go of my own agenda and focus on him. In my head, I kept thinking about the milk we needed and bread we didn't have, but I fought back the urge to gather those things and stuck by his side. As we walked back to the car with a drink and a snack in hand, I could see he felt much more relaxed and at ease compared to when I first picked him.
He was so chatty in the car and couldn't stop talking on the way home about his tennis lesson and then about his day at school. He normally jumps out of the car without a backward glance while I get my stuff together and am left carrying everything. But tonight he was still so busy telling me about his day that we walked right into the house together. This, for me, felt like a real win.”
-Melanie Atkins is a Hand in Hand Certification Candidate.
Certified Hand in Hand instructors help parents find tools and strategies that connect families. You can go here to find out more about certifying as an instructor with Hand in Hand Parenting.
More Resources for Connecting with your Tween and Teen
Have you tried Special Time? Get this free checklist, try it and see how your teen responds. Be persistent in your goal of spending quality time with your teen. Keep things light and playful. Lean in, listen and let them take the lead.
For more on fostering closeness with your teen read Keeping Closer to Your Teen: Why Parents Need Flexibility
Find out how this mom sets calm limits with her older child: Don't Get Mad, Get Curious: Setting Limits That Kids Listen To
Take these ideas a step further! Our online class Raising Happier Tweens gives you proven parenting strategies to bust away attitude and bring lasting closeness and understanding.