My first thought was to think back on all my experience parenting and working with teens. My first thoughts are frequently wrong. I realized that my 14-year-old son, Jude, was sitting right next to me. Ding, Ding, Ding! He has the best credentials to answer this question. Why not ask him! He’s the expert!
What followed was me talking with my teen about talking with my teen. (He even grabbed my laptop at times and started typing, “You gotta tell parent’sTHIS!”)
Me: Is it helpful for parents to find out what you are into and learn all about it so they can build some common ground? Like, “Is your teen into skateboarding? Learn all about skateboarding so you can talk to them! Now you can ask if they ‘push mongo’ and if they can ‘aciddrop into a melongrab.’”
Jude: (Laughing Hysterically) You don’t even know what those words mean, do you?
Me: Um, no… I Googled them.
Jude: That stuff might help. It might come off as forced and lame.
Me: Bottom line, I can’t make you talk to me, can I?
Jude: (Kinda Smugly Triumphant) Nope!
Me: (Sigh) Let me type that…
Bottom Line: You can’t make them talk. Sorry. You can’t point the remote at them and press “Unmute.” The good news, however, is that you can adopt a parental posture and create an environment where a real conversation has a much higher chance of happening.
Jude: I like the “unmute” thing!
Me: Hey, thanks, I just think…
Jude: (Interrupting) Just tell them to spend time with their kids. That’s it.
Me: You just told them.
Jude: What? Wait! Are you just typing out what I say?
Me: Yup. Keep talking… I might make it sound more adult-y and mix in some of my thoughts.
According to a real-life teenager, there is no magic formula, but here are five things for parents to think about…
1. Some teens are just quiet or go through quiet phases.
You remember being a teenager, right? Well, it’s way harder now, according to Jude. It’s more cutthroat, more emotionally charged, more adultish—social media amplifies all that exponentially. Jude says teens genuinely feel like you just won’t get it. It’s not an insult. They often process issues internally or with their peers. Resident Teen Expert encourages you to be patient.
Big Idea: Make a standing offer to be available to talk about anything, whenever they want to.
2. Spend time with them not obviously trying to force a “big” talk.
You might be dying to hear about what is going on deep inside their world and incredibly anxious to speak into it. But just offer to watch them play video games, play some Uno, (Jude: Dude. We’ve never played Uno.) or go grab a bite to eat with no agenda other than to enjoy their company. Make small talk. Don’t sweat silences.
Big Idea: Don’t force it. Spend time with them and see what happens organically. Small talk often leads to BIG TALK.
3. Don’t freak out when you hear something that rattles you.
Jude says this is “super important.” If they do open up to you, you will hear some stuff. Maybe some shocking stuff. If you freak out, it might be a loooong time before they open up to you again. Keep a good poker face. Jude: And don’t bombard them with a million questions. Don’t lecture. Me: Got it! Empathize. Probe gently. Listen, then listen some more. (Check out this article on active listening skills—especially the Six Levels of Listening.)
Big Idea: So many teens say that their parents don’t listen and just talk at them, not with them.
Me: So, how do I do with all this?
Me: Okayokayokay! I’ll work on it!
4. You might not be the person they feel comfortable talking with right now.
Jude: Some stuff I just feel better talking to Davin about. (His older brother.) As a parent, I’ve had to settle for… are they talking to someone? Someone I trust? For some topics and even some phases of teenage life, I realized my teen was more comfortable talking to Mom. I had to work to get to a place where I was just happy they had someone to talk to that I knew would basically give them the same input that I would. It might be an older sibling, their aunt, a teacher, or a coach. I know I can trust my sister, their favorite aunt, to give me a heads-up if she hears something I need to know about.
Big Idea: Encourage them to cultivate relationships with people they are comfortable talking to.
5. Talk to them. But be real. Be transparent. Be vulnerable.
This speaks for itself. Sometimes we expect our teens to give us things we aren’t willing to give them. Me: Am I real with you Jude? Jude: Yeah. Maybe too real… Me: So that’s a compliment?
Big Idea: Make sure you are giving conversationally what you hope to get from your teen.
Me: You get the final word.
Jude: Spend time with them, listen, don’t lecture. Just tell parents to spend time with their kids.
Me: You just did, again. What do you think of this blog?
Jude: This blog goes hard.
And then, on the way to school the next morning, out of nowhere…
Jude: We told them not to lecture, right?
What’s The Big Idea?
- Offer to be available to talk about anything, whenever they want to. Be patient.
- Don’t force it. Spend time with them and let conversations grow organically. Small talk often leads to deeper conversations.
- Practice good listening skills. Don’t talk at them; talk with them.
- Encourage them to cultivate relationships with people they are comfortable talking to and that you can trust.
- Model the openness, vulnerability, and transparency that you are hoping to get in return.