Every parent of teens knows how difficult it is to get them to talk. If they’re not in the mood, and you ask how their day was, the likely answer is a monosyllabic “Fine.” But it’s not always the teen’s fault when communication shuts down. There are things parents do – but shouldn’t be doing – that make teens clam up.
Here’s what the experts say:
Don’t Say “Let’s Talk”
When parents have something important to discuss with their teens, like when they want them to pay more attention to their homework or help out more around the house, they often say “let’s talk.” But that’s not the best conversation starter with teens. Child psychologist Dr. Shelsa Sen notes that “alarm bells go off in their brains and the shutters come down, making it pretty much impossible for a meaningful conversation to happen.” Instead of saying “let’s talk,” be more lighthearted and less demanding when you’ve something important to discuss with your teen.
Don’t Raise Your Voice In Anger
If you’re angry at something your teen did (or didn’t do), it’s tempting to raise your voice or otherwise show how upset you are. “When parents yell or use sarcasm or point fingers,” says Joe White, the author of Sticking With Your Teen, ”kids figure it’s okay for them to do the same.” An otherwise calm conversation can turn into a full-blown argument. And, if your teens expect that you’ll raise your voice, they may not want to talk at all. As Joanne Teigen, the author of Growing Home Together, a well-known parenting blog, says, “If our kids expect an angry outburst, they’ll choose secrecy over full disclosure. Instead of bringing out what’s on your mind in the heat of the moment, wait until you’ve calmed down so that you can have a level-headed conversation. Mental health counselor Debbie Pincus says that “if either you or your child is upset, pause and come back when you can address things in a calmer way.”
Don’t overreact to things your teen shares with you. “If you overreact,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg, “your kids will stop talking because they’ll get the impression that you can’t handle the information they’re sharing. Ms. Pincus agrees: “Emotion is your enemy when you’re trying to get through to your teen. Remind yourself that what he says and does isn’t a reflection on you.” Take a deep breath and listen as calmly as you can to what your teen is telling you. If you have doubts or concerns, state them calmly.
Don’t rush your teen. “If you punch the accelerator,” says clinical psychologist Rachele Cassava Lohman, “your teen may slam on the brakes and bring the conversation to a screeching halt.” Let the conversation evolve slowly and steadily instead of trying to force your teen to get to a predetermined point as quickly as possible.
Teens are used to constantly being judged – at school and elsewhere. Don’t add to the pressure that they feel by judging them too. As Dr. Greenberg says, “teens are very sensitive to how their parents perceive them, and if they get the slightest inkling of disapproval – even from non-verbal cues – they’re likely to end the conversation.”
If judging is bad, lecturing is worse. “Nothing kills a conversation faster than someone telling you that you’re wrong and they know better,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy Darling. Dr. Carol Maxym, another clinical psychologist, agrees: “remember when you were a teen, and your parents lectured at you? And you thought, ‘Will you please stop; I already got the point?’ Stop before your teen gets there.” Enough said.
Don’t Offer Advice
The same principle applies to offering advice: don’t do it. If you absolutely must, refrain from giving it prematurely. As Ms. Teigen says, “dishing out advice before they’ve had a chance to express their thoughts fully will send them running in the opposite direction.” Instead, if your teen comes to you for advice, try to come up with a solution together instead of telling them what you think they should do. “When we can reflect feelings and them help them brainstorm solutions,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham, author of Positive Parenting and other books, “kids find us more useful to talk to – and they’re more likely to seek out when they’ve problems.”
Don’t Give Up
Finally, but no less important, don’t give up. “Persistence is the final secret,” says Kevin Kruse, a well-known author and motivational speaker. “If your kids think they can get away with ‘fine’ and you’ll leave them alone, then that’s all you’ll ever hear.” As Mr. Kruse puts it only partly tongue-in-cheek: “you never know–eventually they might even ask you how YOUR day is going.”
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.