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The Best Way to Talk With Your Teen

Updated on October 11, 2010
Mighty Mom profile image

Mighty Mom is a keen observer of life. She shares her personal experiences and opinions in helpful and often amusing ways.

"Everybody's talkin' at me. I can't hear a word they're saying..." so begins the classic Harry Nillson song made famous in the film "Midnight Cowboy." Often, when I try to initiate conversation with my teen son, I sense he's buried deep in the echoes of his mind, too -- or somewhere else equally far, far away.

Other times he'll hold me at bay for 20 or more questions with monosyllabic answers. Then, just as I'm about to give up, he suddenly erupts like a verbal volcano. When this happens, it's usually on a topic unrelated or only tangentially related to what I've been asking about. Go figure!

Is there rhyme or reason to the successful conversations we've had? Yes. And no. Is there a formula for getting your teen to talk to you consistently? There are some common sense guidelines. Some of my tactics may or may not jibe with your parenting style. I'm happy to share them with you anyway:

Rapt attention is earned

Teen Talk Tip #1: Strategic Hostage Taking

Wrong Way: Summon your teen into your study (if you have one) or other formal room. Tell him to shut the door behind him. Be sure to sit with a desk between you. Talk "at" your child until you've finished your pre-written script. I guarantee there will be no questions, so go ahead and dismiss him. Wasn't that awkward? Of course it was. It means you've done your parental duty. Good job! NOT!!!

Right Way: First, eliminate distractions.Today's teens wear an extra layer of protection in the form of earphones and cell phones. An ingenious (and perfectly legal) way to get them to turn off the electronics is to put them behind the wheel of the car. Bear in mind, I am not advocating having talks of any kind beyond "Watch out for that pedestrian!" or "Turn right at the next stop sign and don't forget to signal!" in the early stages of driving lessons. However, once your little teen darling is comfortable in the role of chauffeur, your trap is set. Now go for it!

Teen Talk Tip #2: Listen for Your Opening

Wrong Way: Demand that your teen pay attention because "This is important for your future." Even worse, "... this is a subject that is very important to me and your father/mother." This tactic is doomed to failure. What's important to you is very likely not what your teen deems important. Starting any conversation with:

a) "Listen up, son"

b) "I need to talk to you"

c) "We need to talk"

d) Any other opener that puts the other person on "Uh oh!" notice

is bad. You cannot shove your way into a conversation.

Right Way: Start anywhere. Talk about something neutral. Inquire about school/friends/sports/interests. See which topic -- if any -- resonates and generates more than a "Yeah" or "Pretty much" response. Once you hit a nerve, keep probing on that topic and let your teen provide details as he feels comfortable. If he changes the subject, go with the new subject.

It's like waiting for your pitch in baseball. The only certainty is that eventually your teen will toss one right across the plate.

Teen Talk Tip #3: Go with the Flow

Wrong Way: So you've got your teen bubbling away about his guitar lessons or her upcoming cheerleader tryouts. You may be tempted to abruptly shift into a more serious topic. Whoa... disconnect! This is a mistake and it may cost you in trust points. The next time your teen feels magnanimous in the info sharing department, he'll remember where it got him last time ... and may decide to keep mum.

Right Way: Forget your agenda. If you're lucky enough to have gotten to this point, balance on it as long as you can. Let your teen talk on about whatever. The topic doesn't matter a whit. You're letting your teen feel heard. That's more important than any specific lesson you might have to "teach." Keep listening, and I guarantee you'll learn something yourself!

Positive Parenting Models

Unhealthy Parenting Role Models

Teen Talk Tip #4: Share Your Experience

Wrong Way: We've all heard the stereotypical parent/child lectures that start, "When I was your age, we didn't have shoes. We walked to school in the snow barefoot, uphill both ways." Not very effective, is it? Especially if you live in a warmer climate where there is no snow! But the main problem with this approach is that it sets up an unrealistic comparison between then/now and your past/your child's present. Like all those starving children in ____ (my mom used China), what possible difference is it going to make to them over there if I eat my dinner here in America? None whatsoever. Kids need examples that make sense in their own ego-centric worldviews.

Right Way: The challenge here is making your experience relevant to the child's situation. I've found that my son responds better when I combine strength and wisdom with vulnerability. Case in point, we're currently discussing getting him a car. He knows Mom's top requirements are safety (first) and gas mileage. From these two main topics we can foray into a wide variety of issues from regular maintenance to designated drivers to buying new vs. used cars.

This gives Mom an opportunity to tell him what I've learned from my past car purchases (especially mistakes I won't make again). It even gets him thinking about what Mom should consider when my current car bites the dust. This segues into a general discussion about finances (which also happens to be an extremely timely topic for most of us). And that allows me to offer this word of advice: "If there's one class I hope you take in college that I wish I had taken, it's economics. Heck, I had to learn the hard way about bouncing checks, because I didn't understand the concept of depositing money in the account. My freshman year I must have overdrawn my acount a dozen times!!!"

He got a good chuckle out of that, and I got to make my point.

Teen Talk Tip #5: Pull, Don't Push

Wrong Way: This is basically any technique that puts a wall between you and your teen. In this regard, it's much, much easier to guarantee your teen's silence than to get him to open up. It may not feel like waterboarding to you, but put yourself in your teen's position. When you put someone on the defensive, you're not communicating, you're interrogating.

Right Way: Initiating conversation with your teen is a lot like getting a date. You have to show just the right amount of interest. If you want it too badly, you'll repel rather than attract. If you come at it any way except straight on, you're likely to fail. Your teen knows you are the parent. You know you are the parent. That is not in question here. You're trying to have a conversation.

Am I suggesting you play coy or play games? No. I'm saying approach your teen with respect . Build rapport slowly. Encourage your teen to talk without judgment. Offer your opinion only if asked. Listen to what is being told to you.

It may not be the conversation you want to have. But be patient. Keep practicing and eventually the conversation will come around to what you do want to talk about.

Final Thoughts on Patience

I'm going to go back to the dating analogy here. Say you've spent a nice hour drive with your child. The time flew because you were chatting away about a range of topics -- some yours, some his. You're feeling like a winner: this is what makes parenthood worthwhile!! There is hope for the two of you after all.

Before you go your separate ways, you make a point of thanking your teen and saying what a nice time you had. You may even set a date for your next drive together.

However, I caution you to be very, very careful not to carry expectations beyond the front door. To you, this has been a bonding experience. You can't wait to replicate it and build on the relationship.

For your teen, the memory of what happened in the car will fade as soon as something new takes its place. That is, pretty much instantly.

Don't give up. Keep trying. You may endure one or more silent drives before you're graced with another full-on conversation. But that's okay. Your teen now trusts you not to talk his ear off, but to do the one thing he really wants you to do: listen.

Oh yes... and let him drive your car:-).


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    • profile image 5 years ago from upstate, NY

      Like your idea about allowing your teen to drive, it seems to work with me and my 18 year old daughter. It seems your suggestions involve the hard work of building relationship which gives you an opportunity to speak into your teens life- this I wholeheartedly agree with!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      My daughter is just 1 year old. But it pays to prepared for the teen talk. I appreciate the heads up. :)

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 6 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi Mom,

      This is just my own personal advice but I say NO. Our job as parents of teens is to be role models. We need them to see us as caring and supportive and approachable but not imperfect and vulnerable.

      I am not saying to lie to your teen about what happened to you. Just be careful about what s/he can handle in terms of the truth.

      Bear in mind that if you reveal too much your teen may simply dismiss your viewpoint on what they should do that as, "Well of course Mom made that mistake so of course her views on my sex life are colored by that."

      I think there is a way to convey the same life lesson in more of a hypothetical, impersonal way. Involve the teen in "What would you do if..." scenarios. How s/he answers these hypothetical questions can help guide you toward the subject you want to discuss without making it about YOU.

      Bear in mind, too, that teens don't like to think of their parents having sex. Sorry. It's true.

      Now, having said all that, you are the expert on your relationship with YOUR teen. I never like to suggest anyone be dishonest or lie. Just don't go overboard with TMI. As the teen becomes older and more mature you can always be more forthcoming about your past. But not now.

      My two cents.


      P.S. I'm writing this as my son is now almost 20. There are subjects I am SO glad I didn't push with him when he was younger. He simply was too immature and guarded to hear my truth then. I am still feeding little bits as I feel he is ready to process. Meaning, I am taking his lead on initiating the discussions. This feels right to me.

      Good luck!


    • profile image

      mom 6 years ago

      I have a question - Is it good to share and be vulnerable with your teens about mistakes you have made in the past. How vulnerable do you go. Its about sex, do i share the major mistake i made and what happened to me, regrets etc.

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi Dawn. Thanks so much for commenting.

      The teen years are so hard because the teen is so volatile. And vulnerable == but of course,thing they are invincible (that's the perfect word).

      I've been through training that showed me all the ways I was blocking communication with my son. Eye opening!

    • dawnM profile image

      Dawn Michael 7 years ago from THOUSAND OAKS

      super information mighty mom, that is a tough age, and many parents need this solid advice, because we still want our teens to be able to come to us if they get themselves in a jam and by having an already open communication style with them it is half of the battel!!! Teens still need their parents guidence even though they think that they are

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      LOL DeepThinker. "I had to calm down before I wasable to make him see things from my perspective..."


      We were "allowed" to make our own mistakes growing up, primarily because our parents were truly ignorant of what we were doing.

      Having recently made it through -- and lived to tell about it (mine just turned 18, which is 3 very LONG years older than 15), I can only offer my support.

      Good luck. It does get better after the mortification stage:-). MM

    • deepthinker76 profile image

      deepthinker76 7 years ago from South Carolina

      MM that is so true. I had to calm down before I was able to make him see things from my perspective. I told him what I was afraid of..what I learned from my own experience, and what others have told me on the subject. He is the wonderful age of 15 right mortified!

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Ha ha deepthinker76! The old "hit 'em while you're angry trick!" Spouting LAWS at your kid (assume it's a teen)? They have their own laws. They don't care about laws. They are invincible, dontcha know!!!

      Well, I hope the next time you broach the subject you are able to do it in a calmer way.

      One thing I have found very effective (now that my little demon has achieved legal age of 18) is to admit I'm living in fear. Admit I'm having a hard time adjusting to him being an "adult" and backing off from my parenting responsibilities. Which just happens to be true!


    • deepthinker76 profile image

      deepthinker76 7 years ago from South Carolina

      I really like this. I recently had "THE TALK" for the second time with my son..It consisted of the "summon to the room" the "DEMAND OF HIS FULL ATTENTION" and "SOME RANT ON LAWS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SUBJECT" I was so that got me absolutely NO WHERE... I laugh but at myself instead of the situation. I had 7 typed pages of laws and WAS I THINKING?! Anyway,I really liked this ... sounds as if it were coming from someone who has been there. THANKS

    • marcofratelli profile image

      marcofratelli 9 years ago from Australia

      So... great to see that some parents do get it !! :)

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hey there, Ms. Love, Thanks for your message. I haven't yet been able to have the frank sex talk you described so, so well in your hub. But I've learned the hard way what works and what doesn't when trying to communicate with my teen. "We have to talk" is always the kiss of death. Not just with teens, but with Hubby, too!

    • Ms.Love profile image

      Ms.Love 9 years ago

      I wish my parents had taken some of those approches with me. I remember everytime they wanted to talk, it was always we need to talk and my first reaction was UH OH! Am I in trouble?

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      So glad to hear you are having those talks with your pre-teen, RGraf. My tongue is scarred from having to bite it so often, but as I've learned to be patient, I've actually heard some good info from my son.

      Thanks for sharing! MM

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 9 years ago from Wisconsin

      I've got a pre-teen and I'm finding that I can't just have these conversations when I want them. When we have a girls' day together and I begin to confess some of my own past and issues I've had, then we get somewhere.

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi Debbie Reynolds, sounds like your teen and mine are similar. What did you say about making every possible wrong choice? Uh, been there, still doing that. But I know from those who have walked this parental rode before that it DOES pass. Meanwhile, there's support to be had here on HP. I'm glad you got something out of my hub. Maybe I should go back and read what I said. I wrote it awhile back, and as you know, our teens change so quixotically at this age!

      Good luck! Happy to be here as a shoulder to vent on anytime! MM

    • profile image

      Debbie Reynolds 9 years ago

      I loved your advice on how to talk, or I should say, LISTEN to your teens. You really know what your doing. Would it be possible for you to raise one more and send him back at age ? Just kidding.

      What do you suggest with teens who "know it all" and want to make every possible wrong choice?

      All of you give me hope. I know this too will pass, but till then Pray for me!

      Thank You, great Hub site.

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi PeaceNow -- You sound like a very responsible parent yourself! In this instance I meant put the teen behind the wheel while you, the parent are sitting in the passenger seat. This reversal of roles is magical. It somehow opens their ears to what you need to say (look out for that truck!) but at the same time things you want them to hear about a variety of topics... That's where my son and I are right now. He is still in driving permit land. A looonnnngggg way to go before he has the maturity to drive on his own!

      Thanks for the wisdom.

    • profile image

      PeaceNow 9 years ago

      Sounds like you are very loving and nurturing.  I do not agree about "let him drive your car" though.  Driving is a hugh responsibility (not just a reward for being good) and there is nothing gained by being "nice" about this.  Parents need to decide if letting the child drive is worth the liability risks that they will incur.  I am not inclined to be a parent with "deep pockets" that takes on responsibility and/or makes everything right again.  If a child is working and has the resources to pay for gas and fender benders then a parent has some basis for thinking it is okay. 

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      I will check it out! thanks!!!

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 9 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      You're very welcome.

      If you're interested, I just published "Hubpage of Horror" for hubbers' roommate horror stories, BY hubbers. It's a Halloween hub for everyone to participate.

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks, Eddie. If you have a child now grown and taking care of you, you did a great job! I'm happy for you!

      CW -- Simply listening is the best formal advice I've gotten. There is a technique called "active listening." But what's a Mom to do when the kid won't talk at all? What I've discovered is just keep waiting and being there. And, you said it perfectly. NOT offer your opinion or advice. This is why I had my tongue cut off (LOL). It takes sooo much patience!

      Next I think I'll write one on how to ignore the well-meaning (or not) parenting advice from others who have no clue. I've got more war wounds from that than from dealing directly with my son:-)!

      Thanks for commenting. MM

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 9 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      Mighty Mom. These are some of the best parenting tips for talking to teens I've ever heard. Wow! I am not a parent, but an uncle to many... MANY nieces and nephews whom I've always had great relationships with.

      I've always treated them like they were intelligent (even if we all know teens aren't quite there yet) and simply listened. I mean genuinely listened. Then comes the hard part: Not offering advice or my opinion... unless it's asked for, which thankfully, it occasionally is.

      Great hub. And I'm betting you're a great mom, too.

    • profile image

      Eddie Perkins 9 years ago

      Mighty Mom,

      What else could I say? Where were you when I was raising my children with all the wrong ways?

      Well, they've turned out great, but I can't take the credit. Fortunately for me I have One Who looks afte me. Thanks for the great hub. ~ eddie

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi Dottie,

      I've just been reading a very, very long comment thread on a heated political subject (Why Obama should not be president). At the end decided I had absolutely nothing to contribute. Makes me think your advice that letting kids talk and talk and talk until they exhaust themselves -- even if we don't agree -- isn't such bad advice for "some" hubbers, also!

      I feel blessed that I'm joining HubPages now, with (knock on wood) the worst behind us. It's been hellish -- but whose experience isn't, in one way or another? I like what you said about messing up a zillion times and still love, learn and grow. That's what I feel my son and I are doing now. Amen, fellow mom!

    • Dottie1 profile image

      Dottie1 9 years ago from MA, USA

      Hi MightyMom......I love how you began this hub, everybodys talking at me, can't hear a word I'm saying....ain't that the truth.   I just made it through momhood.  Sent my last off to college this year.

      I learned that moms and teens mess up a zillion times and can still love, learn and grow.  It took me a while to learn some important lessons on being a good mom but one I remember that really worked to my advantage was to let them talk talk talk talk talk until they exhausted themselves out, even when I didn't agree with everything they were saying.  Then and only then could they hear me when I had something important to say!

      Enjoyed the hub. Thanks for sharing! ~Dottie~

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks so much, Marisuewrites. I'm learning as I go here. And realizing exactly what you say. Our kids don't really expect us to have all the answers. Whew! What a relief that has been for this highly imperfect model of a Mom:0-)! But love goes a long way.

      I like your parallel with talking to a spouse. Hmmm. might be worthy of a hub.

      Thanks for stopping in and sharing this adventure called momhood ...

    • marisuewrites profile image

      marisuewrites 9 years ago from USA

      Hi Mighty Mom, as a mom of many myself I found much to agree with here! Talking to teens or any child even spouse means begin where you are and you pointed that out beautifully. We can't go back in time and undo what's done or do what we should have, but we can build solid connections by beginning today to listen, let them know we care, and that it's ok not to have all the answers. Sometimes when my sons bring a trouble or heartbreak to me, I just hug and listen and let them know that time can be a healer, especially if we bring some lessons learned into the next challenge.

      Most of the time they just want re-assurance they're going to get thru this; we can give that wisdom without the reminders of what they "shudda, cudda, wudda" done had they listened...etc.

      Good wisdom here, I love your hubs!!! =))

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Amen to that, Pam! It gives me hope that your children have made it through and are on the other side. We're way past knowing things we wish we didn't know. I'm now in that, "How can I possibly turn back the clock and teach him -- using any sneaky method possible -- the life lessons he really needs to have at least a passing familiarity with." I'm coming to the conclusion that serving as a living example is the best I can offer. If we can get a discussion going around it, that's bonus!

      Thanks as always for the support and for sharing our commonalities:-). MM

    • profile image

      pgrundy 9 years ago

      Great hub! My two girls were very secretive until they passed 20 or so and then they started to tell me things I wished I'd not known. My son, on the other hand, told me EVERYTHING when he was a teenager, to the point where I was in this, "No, stop! No more!" mode. They all seem to have made it to adulthood intact and found loving partners and lives so I guess it all worked out, but looking back it still scares me. There is nothing more terrifying than raising teenagers.

      Great advice! Thank you for offering it.

    • NYLady profile image

      NYLady 9 years ago from White Plains, NY

      I know -- I always get lost looking for it. Go to Forums, then Hubbers Hangout, then look for the Hubnuggets announcement (second item, I think). Then go there and scroll down a bit. Congrats again!

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      I hate to be a hubdummie, but where do I go to see that? I saw the voting,etc. but don't know where the results are. Too busying trying to act natural and casual with my son:-). Thx!

    • NYLady profile image

      NYLady 9 years ago from White Plains, NY

      It's definitely a phase. They just get monosyllabic and a bit nutty and hateful. Then they turn human again. Boys are great, aren't they? Oh, and congrats on being number 1 in last week's hub of the week contest. You earned that spot!

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 9 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks, NYL! You give me hope that this IS just a phase. I'm seeing glimpses. I'll be watching for your next hub. I know it will be grand!!

    • NYLady profile image

      NYLady 9 years ago from White Plains, NY

      Love this, MM! How true. Wish I had a dollar for every time I approached my teens in the "wrong" rather than the "right" ways. Yikes. They still turned out OK, thank goodness. And now that they're both at out-of-town colleges, it's amazing how conversant they've become and how less insane I've become. Hope you're well. I have to get back to hubbing!!


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