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  • Writer's pictureKrista Bjork

How to Get your Teen to Talk to You

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

It's a commonly accepted stereotype that teenagers don't want to talk to their parents.

And sure, there is some truth to the stereotype. It's the age when kids are differentiating and figuring out who they are as separate from their parents. They are leaning more on friends, or learning that they need alone time to process their heavy emotions. However, I learn in my work with teenagers in counseling that often the reason kids aren't talking to their parents has less to do with their age and more to do with how their parents respond. Many complain that they aren't talking because parents aren't actually listening, and if they do listen, they respond poorly. What can parents do to open lines of communication?

First, take advantage of moments when they want or need to talk.

You can’t expect them to talk when you want to know something if you haven’t listened when they actually wanted to tell something. Sometimes they don’t know if they want to tell you, but they need to tell someone, and if you’re the one who’s available it’s so much better than them only having a peer to vent to. You can help build their character and process in a healthier way, besides building a solid relationship with your teen.

Sometimes you have gently to coax it out of them. Look for cues in their body language.

If you’re attentive, you can tell if your teenager is stressed, sad, or angry. Then find a time to knock on their door and gently bring up the topic. Say, “You seem a little stressed today.” (Or a little sad, whatever you’ve noticed based on their behavior). Then say nothing. Wait in silence, even if it gets a little uncomfortable. Hopefully, they will eventually speak up. If you comment on their behavior and then ask, “Did something happen at school? Did your boyfriend break up with you? And so on, you come across as an interrogator, not as a caring listener. So just observe and be quiet.

Listen actively.

If your teenager starts to share, demonstrate the body language of listening. Make eye contact, use empathetic facial expressions, and turn toward them. Don't look like you are anxiously waiting to get to the next task on your to-do list.

Summarize what they said using different words.

For instance, say your child goes on a rant about a teacher. “Mrs. Smith told us she would never give out homework over the weekend, but a bunch of kids didn't do their assignment from yesterday, so now she's assigned additional homework for over the weekend for the entire class!"

Parent: "So you ended up with extra work."

Teen: “Yes! And now I have not only homework from her class, but all the math homework I usually have plus a big project for my American History class that’s due next week and I’m really behind on it. I’m hardly going to have a weekend at all now!”

Parent: “You’re really loaded down with homework right now. That's going to make your weekend less restful.”

Next, focus on emotions.

If they use any language that indicates that emotion when they’re telling the story, take special note to include that in your summary choosing a different but similar emotion word to what your teen chose. So if they add to the rant about the teacher, “It was so unfair of her to punish all of us, even those who did their homework,” you would say, “What she did felt really unjust.” You’re not focusing on attacking the teacher (or friend who said something mean, or whatever the case) or agreeing with your child that she was unfair, you are restating what THEY FELT about what happened. Agreeing with someone is not the same thing as listening to them.

If your teen doesn’t add in an emotion, you can go that route on your own. Try, “I bet that felt really unfair.” Or, “If that happened to me I would feel like it was a little unfair.” “I imagine all that homework must feel overwhelming.” You’re hoping this will prompt your teen to then tell you how they actually feel. You may just get “I guess,” but you’re still showing you sympathize with them by trying to pinpoint emotion.

Offer a statement of sympathy.

“I’m so sorry you had a hard day.” “It stinks that you have so much homework this weekend.”

Offer a statement of encouragement.

Lukas, one of my handsome fellas.

“You always try to have a good attitude when things are unfair. I really appreciate that about you.” “I’ve seen you be really diligent and tackle some pretty major homework assignments. I know you feel frustrated right now, but I know you can get through it.” When offering encouragement, try to focus on character qualities of your child, not a defect in a person they are having a conflict with. If you feel a comment about their physical appearance is necessary for the situation, pair it with a comment about their character rather than only focusing on externals.

DO NOT offer advice!

It’s so tempting, I know, I’m the absolute worst at this part! But your kids expect you to dispense advice. Every once in a blue moon they’ll take part of it and use it, but nine times out of ten their brain immediately shuts down, and all they hear are shame statements. “You don’t know how to handle this. You are inadequate. You are wrong to feel what you’re feeling.” You think it’s your job as a parent to tell them how to fix it, and maybe it was when they were little, but how does unsolicited advice make you feel? Yep, that’s how it makes your teenager feel.

Instead, just encourage them and tell them you love them and you’re here for them if they need you for anything.

If you make yourself available and do the work of listening and valuing what they say, they will come to you for advice when they need it and believe you’re the person who can best help them. It won’t always be you- sometimes they’ll go to another adult, and that needs to be okay. If you feel upset when your child asks someone else for advice, consider if you’ve made your child or their “needing you” an idol of your heart. If they do ask you for advice, don’t demean or act like you have all the answers. You probably know a lot more than your child does about how to deal with the situation, but your tone should be one you might offer to another adult rather than one of telling them what to do if you want them to receive it well. “The way that’s worked for me is…” or “An idea you could try…”

The last time my son asked me for my advice I was on my way to bed. I was tired and all I could think of was crawling under the covers and cracking open a book. My exhaustion the next day was worth staying up to take that golden opportunity to help him when he asked. It was a parenting investment that guaranteed he will see me as a safe person to come to when he’s in need.

What if you try this and your child doesn’t respond how you hope?

Calmly leave and say “Okay, I’m here for you if you need anything. I love you.” And then walk away and say no more until the next time. Don’t force them to talk if gentle coaxing didn’t work. But keep trying. Go back next time you notice that they seem emotional, upset, or more distant than usual and try again. And again.

If there has been some relational distance or awkwardness that’s happened as they’ve matured, it might take a little time to break through it and create a new dynamic in your relationship. Most kids think their parents don’t or won’t understand them, will minimize their problems or think they’re stupid, or will give advice they don’t want. If you’ve been guilty of any of these, you’ll have to prove yourself to them over time. They act like they don’t need or want your help or affection, but they need it more than they ever have.

Lovingly force yourself upon them. Give big hugs and use the excuse that you’re the mom or the dad and they just have to deal with it. Underneath their squirming, they love that you love them. They crave your approval. Yes, the teen years can be challenging and difficult, but they are also years of incredible opportunity to invest in the character or our kids as they become adults. I think of how God is always so faithful and patient with me and loves me even when I’m stubborn and opinionated and not terribly lovable. He pursues me even when I’m running and hiding. Every time I give my big teenage son a hug he acts like he doesn’t want I picture my Heavenly Father and His unstoppable love.

In what ways do you need to change how you talk and listen to your teenager? What is your goal in parenting your teen in this season- a closer relationship, helping them overcome a life challenge or area of weakness, or perhaps helping them grow in certain character qualities? Ask God for wisdom and fresh motivation to lovingly pursue your teen.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” – James 1:19

“To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.” – Proverbs 18:13

“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” – Proverbs 18:2

“The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.” – Proverbs 17:27

“…a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.” – Ecclesiastes 3:7

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” – Ephesians 4:15

“…not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” – Philippians 2:4

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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