Have you ever tried to have a conversation with your teenager about their inner thoughts, hopes, fears, dreams, or even just what they did at school that day, and receive nothing more than a single word or a nonverbal shrug? Or heaven forbid, the dreaded eye roll? Parents often lament that in attempting to have conversations with their teenagers, they are frustrated by their teen’s apparent lack of responsiveness, or by the monosyllabic responses they receive. Here are five ways to help engage your teen in more meaningful conversation.
Model healthy communication by inviting
Viewing your teenager as an “adult-in-training” can help provide insight and perspective into what skills an increasingly independent teen needs to cultivate long-term healthy relationships. Inviting conversation, rather than demanding conversation, shows your teenager that respectful relationships allow for both parties to negotiate the terms of their interactions and practice healthy personal boundaries. Not all teens may want to discuss their daily experiences right after school or on Saturday morning. Negotiating this conversation is a great opportunity for your teenager to explore and practice personal boundaries, developmentally appropriate autonomy, and effective communication patterns in the context of their safe relationship with you. Discuss with your teenager that you would love to chat with them about what they are experiencing, that you are interested in their activities and interests, and invite them to have those conversations with you when they would like to do so. Consider their interests, and invite them to get a smoothie with you on Saturday, to show you their favorite video game or YouTube channel, to help cook a special dinner one night, or go shopping with them. By modeling respect and inviting conversation instead of demanding it, your teenager may be more inclined to converse, giving you an opportunity to have a great interaction.
Validate their experiences and feelings
Validation is a powerful, yet often misunderstood tool. It is sometimes viewed as an agreement that what your teenager is doing, or the behavior that they are exhibiting is acceptable to you, when that may not be the case. Validation is not inherent agreement, and it does not mean dismissing house rules, parental authority, or safety measures; it simply means that you’re acknowledging your teen’s point of view. The purpose of validation is not to provide a value judgment on the experience or thought process that your teen is expressing, but rather to help you both get on the same page so that you can move onto the next step in the conversation together. Engaging in immediate disagreement can lead to discontinued conversation, withdrawal, or a “rut” of contentious conversation.
Validation can look like nonverbal cues such as nodding and listening, verbal cues such as reflecting your teen’s thoughts and feelings back to show that you’ve understood what they’ve said, and helping them contain difficult feelings by sitting through the feelings with them or helping them to identify the feelings they may be experiencing. Validation can help you get to the core of your teen’s behavioral motivation and give you a better understanding of where your teen is coming from. It can also help facilitate emotional regulation and meaningful exchanges in challenging situations.
Avoid the question “Why?”
Using the question “Why?” often leads to an “I don’t know”, or a shrug. By targeting your question to the specific situation, you can help your teenager learn more about their own decision-making process and help them evaluate their own thought processes, while moving towards the meaningful conversation you seek.
For example, if your teenager storms downstairs fuming, and tells you that they’re not going to finish their homework and they don’t care if they pass their math class or not, instead of saying “Why?”, try asking a “What” or “How” question:
- “What happened that led you to decide not to do your homework?”
- “What happened to cause you to feel angry?”
You can also use a validating statement such as:
- “It sounds like you’re really frustrated by the homework.”
- “You really couldn’t stand working on that homework for another minute.”
By narrowing your question to a specific event or feeling, and validating the response or emotion, you can help your teen learn to regulate their strong emotions, review their emotional response, evaluate their reasoning for making certain decisions, and continue the conversation more effectively.
Meet your teenager where they are
The technology that rules our smartphones and laptops today has revolutionized the way that teenagers communicate, relate to one another, and interact with their world. Remaining informed about the social and cultural forces that influence them on a daily basis can be a powerful tool in connecting with your teenager. Delving into social media, new communication techniques and apps, and keeping up-to-date with your teenager’s methods of communicating in our modern era may help keep communication lines open, and also, help you encourage your child’s safety and good decision-making online in our age of mobile and incredibly accessible technology. This doesn’t mean you have to become an Instagram influencer, but simply that keeping up with your teenager’s technologically-savvy communication style may be beneficial in keeping the conversations flowing.
Praise your Teenager
The teenage years are full of transitions, challenges, decisions, and often massive personal growth and autonomy. If you notice that your teenager is handling certain situations with maturity and finesse, be sure to praise your teenager for the way they are doing things well. If your teenager is great at handling autonomy and completing tasks, let them know you’re impressed by their ability to make positive choices. If they show kindness and compassion towards others that impresses you, tell them. If they are great at advocating for themselves and forging their own path forward, compliment their willpower and unique perspective. If they’re particularly artistic, thoughtful, athletic, creative, or have other qualities that you admire, give them the gift of your praise and confidence. By praising your teenager, you can open and maintain positive communication about their interests and unique abilities.
Engaging your teenager in meaningful conversations can be a challenge; however, by modeling healthy boundaries and negotiation in relationships and validating your teen’s experiences and feelings, you can begin to deepen these conversations and remain positively connected as your teen grows into adulthood.