It sounds so simple—and so hard. If you want your teen to communicate more openly with you, let her talk. Yes, let your teenager talk—no matter how shocking or galling the story she’s telling, don’t interrupt her. Don’t judge, criticize or correct. Refrain from gasping. Just let her finish.
Susan Newman, a social psychologist, best-selling author of 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 he or she has value, as well as a voice and opinions that are worthy of consideration.
Newman says there are a few simple strategies for opening up those communication lines with your teenager—simple, as we noted, but hard because they may involve overcoming your protective nature and changing your own habits.
Cut the Criticism
The first and most important, she says, is to stop being judgmental and hypercritical, if you have those tendencies. When in doubt about whether to keep your mouth shut or to 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 his friend’s green-dyed hair?
Establishing a pattern of listening and being nonjudgmental will open more doors to communication with your teen than you may imagine. It will help establish a relationship of respect and trust that will go a long way in handling bigger issues that come along.
Hear Your Teen Out
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, 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 midsentence, 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.’ ”
Make Advice Palatable
Newman says there are ways for parents to offer advice that’s easier for their teens to take. “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.”
When It’s Important to Weigh In
There are times when parents need to weigh in on serious issues that may be facing their teens. Such was the case in the small school district of Lake Dallas, Texas, where, within a matter of weeks last year, one teen committed suicide, another hanged himself accidentally and a third attempted suicide. “With these recent 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.’ ”
In general, Newman advises parents to make sure to tell their children that they’re always available to talk and that they will not be judgmental and they will not love the child any less—no matter what. “As a parent, you want to know and to help if something is wrong.”
Balancing Privacy and Protectiveness
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.
Lake Dallas school superintendent Gayle Stinson agrees: “My simple advice would be for parents to feel comfortable and confident in involving themselves in their child’s social media activities. Know who your child is ‘talking’ to on Facebook, Twitter and beyond. Stay in tune with their ‘friends’ and monitor conversations to ensure safety and to prevent cyber-bullying. 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.’ ” And that provides an opportunity for parents to go over what they should and should not being 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.”
So, by 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?
Talk about things of interest to him that have nothing to do with the hot-button teen issues. Ask about a popular computer game, new technology, 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 her and put it on her bed or email an article link, she says.
Avoid bombarding your teenager with annoying questions as a means to get him or her 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.
Another tip 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.”
Something else that could be helpful is to invite one of your teen’s friends along on the activity. They’ll start to chatter and at that point, 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.”
Like we said, it all sounds so easy. And so hard.
Read When Tragedy Hits Home about the Lake Dallas suicides and how its community came together to grieve and hope for a better future.