Getting Tweens and Teens to Talk

Date: February 21, 2012

If you are the parent of a young child, you may still have one who freely talks about her thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences. You may also have heard that once your child becomes older, she will not share with you the way she does now. If you are the parent of an older child, you may now be experiencing a relationship that seems to have little communication within it. You may feel grief over what once was, and wonder where it all went 'wrong'.

Something important to remember is the natural process of growing up, pulling away, relying on peers more and the preference of friends over parents. Hurtful as it may feel, it is helpful to both parent and child in the long run.

That being said, there are some things a parent can do to foster a fairly open and communicative relationship with their older children. These ideas I am about to give you are quite simple and can be very effective. The degree to which your relationship becomes richer has much to do with the determination you have to let go your old style of talking with your child, and create a new habit, a new way. Simple indeed, yet not necessarily easy. The skills I am about to mention are all about listening more and speaking less.

When your tween/teen does decide to share something, tell yourself that your only responsibility is to hear what he is saying and understand how he feels. Your knee-jerk response will likely be to tell him how to fix his problem. I am asking you to ditch your initial responses and think first. When you do, you will remember to listen.

It may be that your child is ranting and raving about a teacher, coach, boss or friend that has angered them. Though you naturally want to help her see why the person may have done or said the thing that angered her, refrain!! Unless, of course, you want your child to stomp off and zip her lips more tightly than ever. When you try to explain the other person's actions, you miss the point. Your child wants to feel understood. (Don't worry…..just because you understand her feelings does not mean you are jumping on her band wagon.) So give her eye contact, listen and let her know you hear her by repeating what she says or even giving a simple acknowledgment like, "I see" or "Uh-huh."

Most of the time, all your tween/teen wants is a place to express his feelings. Once he expresses them (they must be received to be fully expressed) he can begin to work through his feelings. If you try and talk him out of his feelings, like your knee-jerk reaction would have you do, he must dig his heels in and you only drive a larger wedge between the two of you.

This is also true when our children come to us with fears. We want to tell them everything will be alright. In doing so we dismiss their feelings and send them off looking for someone else who WILL understand them. Instead, your only goal at this point is to support their feelings. Later in the conversation you can give your two cents or advice, if they are asking for it. And don't be married to their loving and taking your advice. Give it and allow them to decide if they want to take it.

Another opportunity we have to build an open relationship with our kids is when they are enthusiastic about something and we see little chance their 'something' will work out. For example, I saw a teenage boy excitedly tell his mother that when he started working at the grocery store he was going to work 90 a week. She quickly shut him down by saying, "I've got news for you, Buddy. You'll work the hours the store tells you to work." I saw the look on his face. He was deflated, completely. I would love to have seen that mother respond to her son with, "Oh, you are looking forward to making a lot of money!" and let the store reveal to him how the schedule worked.

The hardest area for me to follow this advice is when my teenage son blurts out a statement that challenges my values. I have often jumped on him to tell him how wrong he was to see things the way he was seeing them. But whenever I have done this, I have created that wedge I referred to earlier. When I have taken this advice, I have listened to him and simply repeated his stance. I have not agreed with him but I have not forced my own perspective on him. I usually have ended the conversation with something like, "Thanks for sharing. Your view is quite different from mine but I like knowing how you see things. " And when I have given up the need to be right, he oftentimes has agreed with my values later on.

One last scenario I want to mention is when you see your teen down. It is so tempting to react and ask, "what's wrong?" Assuming you have tried this in the past, I ask you, how did it work out? Did your teen open up and reveal all of her feelings? Or did she respond with something like, "NOTHING!"? If you'd like a new way to respond to your sad or dejected looking tween/teen, try this. Make a statement like, "Wow. You look pretty down. If you'd like to talk about anything, let me know." And then, go about your own business. You may not get her to share right away but she is more likely to come to you in time. And when you do this regularly, you may have a child who feels truly safe in revealing herself to you.

So you see, there are some very simple skills you can adapt that will encourage more openness with your tween/teen. In summary, remember to:

Listen -

  • without judging
  • without advising
  • with empathy
  • with a goal of simply understanding
  • and see if things don't begin to improve between you and your older child.

~ Happy Parenting!