The Best Way to Talk With Your Teen
"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:-).