It’s a solution that sounds so simple—and so hard: If you want your teen to communicate more openly and chat with you, let them talk. No matter how shocking or galling the story they’re telling, don’t interrupt them. Don’t judge, criticize or correct. Refrain from gasping. Just let them finish.
Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist, author of books including The Case for the Only Child and blogger for Psychology Today, says one of the most important ways to encourage open communication is to let your teen feel that they have value, as well as a voice and opinions that are worthy of consideration.
Tips for communicating with teens
Newman says there are a few simple strategies for opening up those communication lines and chatting with your teenager—but while simple in theory, as we noted, the difficulty comes from whether they will involve overcoming your protective nature and changing your own habits.
Cut the criticism
The first and most important strategy, Newman says, is to stop being judgmental and hypercritical, if you have those tendencies. When in doubt about whether to keep your mouth shut or interrupt, weigh the benefits of opening lines of communication with your teenager versus making the comment you’re just dying to make. After all, is it really that important to say—again—how much you hate their friend’s dyed-green hair?
Establishing a pattern of listening will open the door to improved communication with your teen, potentially helping to establish a relationship of respect and trust that can go a long way in handling bigger issues that come along.
Hear your teen out when chatting with them
No matter how difficult it is for you, it’s important to hear your teenager out. Newman gives this example: “Your son says for example, ‘My friend John’s father offered us each a sip of wine last night’—which of course his friend’s father should not be doing. And your reaction is to say, ‘He did what?!’ But instead, let the teenager talk. The last thing you want to do is interrupt. You want to hear everything he has to say.”
Hearing the entire story is the only way to know whether this friend’s father regularly offers alcohol to your underage son, and to find out how your son reacted. Maybe he made a wise choice and turned down the offer, decided not to go to the friend’s house anymore or any number of other alternatives. “Once your teenager has finished, you can ask questions. But you can easily jump to the wrong conclusion after hearing just a two- or three-phrase comment,” Newman says.
“If you’re jumping in all the time and stopping your teenager mid-sentence, your conversations are going to become fewer and fewer and fewer, because your teenager is going to be saying, ‘There’s no point in talking; my parents don’t listen,’” she continues.
Make advice palatable when you chat with teens
Newman says there are ways for parents to offer advice during a chat that can make it easier for their teens to accept. “It’s rare to have the perfect model teen, and you’re going to want to offer an opinion,” she acknowledges. “One thing that I know works with older teens is to say, ‘Because I’m your parent, I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t tell you this. You may take my advice or not, but because I’m your mother or father, I have to say this. Otherwise I don’t feel like I’m doing my job as a parent.’ Because that gives your child a choice to take your choice or criticism, or not, and what you say doesn’t come out as harshly accusatory or as a critical statement.”
Weigh in when it’s important
There are times when parents need to weigh in on and communicate about serious issues that their teens may be facing. Such was the case in the Lake Dallas Independent School District, where, within a matter of weeks in 2011, “a 17-year-old from a district high school and a 14-year-old from a middle school both committed suicide,” and a third student attempted suicide, according to a WFAA article. “With these… suicides, for instance, you might ask your child, ‘What do you think? Why do you think he was that upset? Or that distraught? I would hope you would come to me if you are so upset about something because we can always get help,’” Newman says.
In general, Newman advises parents to make sure to tell their teens that they’re always available to chat, that they will not be judgmental and they will not love their child any less—no matter what. “As a parent, you want to know and to help if something is wrong,” she says.
Balance privacy and protectiveness when chatting with teens
But it’s important to respect the teen’s privacy, too. “If you start or have been snooping around, that’s just a signal to them to put the wall up between you,” says Newman, who acknowledges the very delicate balance between privacy and protecting a teen—particularly in online situations. “Parents need to discuss online usage and the dangers, particularly involving bullying,” she says.
Former Lake Dallas Independent School District superintendent Gayle Stinson, Ed.D., agrees: “My simple advice would be for parents to feel comfortable and confident in involving themselves in their child’s social media activities…. An open line of communication with your child is imperative.”
One strategy Newman recommends, particularly with younger teenagers, is for parents to ask them to show them how their social networking sites work. “Many younger teens, if not most, will be happy to show off their ‘skills,’” Newman says, which provides an opportunity for parents to go over what they should and should not be doing online.
Depending on the age of the teen, you might want to say outright, “I don’t want to invade your space, but I want reassurance from you about your online activities, and I will back off,” Newman says. “If you have opened or retained open lines of communication, you can check in with older teens now and then for an online update from them, especially if you know your teenager might be a target.”
Conversation starters for communicating with teens
So now you know a little about how not to communicate with your teen—don’t interrupt, criticize unduly or judge. You know there are times when you need to weigh in. But how do you communicate in general?
Ask about their hobbies and interests
Talk about things of interest to your teen that have nothing to do with hot-button teen issues. Ask about a popular computer game, new technology, recent or upcoming sporting event, new movie or a young entertainer who recently performed in your city. And do this fairly often, Newman suggests. If you have a sullen teen who doesn’t like to talk, rip out a news article that might be of interest to them and put it on their bed or email them an article link, she continues.
Avoid bombarding your teenager with annoying questions as a means to get them to talk—“As a strategy for conversation, too many questions won’t work. Your teenager will view you as, well, intrusive and annoying,” Newman says.
Do an activity together and your teen will naturally chat with you
Another tip to get your teen communicating is to do something together. “If you can get them on a bike, that works. Shooting baskets works, painting a room works, cleaning a garage works—they’re not happy to be there but you have their attention,” Newman says. “Grabbing breakfast at the diner, doing something you wouldn’t normally do, like everybody making pancakes together and having breakfast for dinner.”
Let your teen bring a friend along
Something else that could be helpful is to invite one of your teen’s friends along on the activity. Once they start to chatter, step back and let the teenagers take over, Newman suggests. “But don’t try to be the friend’s friend or your kid’s friend. Don’t try to be cute because they will roll their eyes at you,” she continues.
Like we said, it all sounds so easy. And so hard.
This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock