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How to Get Your Teen to Start Talking to You Again

How to Get Your Teen to Start Talking to You Again

You're familiar with the following stereotype, right?

Parent: "Anything happen at school today?"

Teenager: (Grunts something incoherent while texting friends on an overpriced smartphone)

Parent: "Um... how about the week ahead? Anything happening I should know about?"

Teenager: (Rolls eyes, sighs, and throws a piece of pizza at the parent.)

Parent: "Hey! We don't throw food in our house. We eat it."

Teenager: (Stands on chair, waves arms in the air like an angry orangutan)

Okay--so maybe this last part doesn't happen. But perhaps you've experienced something that feels like it. As a dad of teens, I know this pain can be very real, and I hope poking at it with some humor helps us to not feel so alone.

Talking with our teens is often an exchange of the "three A's" - angst, anger and apathy. Let's add a fourth "A" into the conversation: accuracy.

Here's what's accurate when trying to get teens to talk:

  • Your teen has spent years studying you. Initially it was to learn from your example about about how to live life, but this studying also afforded your kid with a keen insight into what pushes your buttons.
  • Your teen is trying to become an individual. Some of the tension you feel are due to the growing pains of your teen's character and identity formation. To grow into adulthood, teens have to figure out who they are apart from others. That's going to involve some relational ripping and tearing (even if your teen is awesome and intends for this to be gentle).
  • Your teen doesn't realize how easy it is to become self-absorbed. Some of those one-word answers you get back aren't always intended to frustrate you. It is not unusual for teens to be so overloaded with the growing demands of their lives that even spitting out one word is a mental chore.

My oldest son is on the front-end of this journey and I've been trying to help him understand how these shifts inside of him and around him are going to cause him to question everything he's known. For example, he recently started questioning my wife and I about how we make certain parenting decisions with his younger siblings. Initially his questions seemed like attitude until we realized that this is his way of understanding why we do the things we do so he can figure out if that's how he wants to live.

What if part of our hurdle in talking with our teens is that we misinterpret their questions?

I'm not suggesting that we try to be a "cool parent" who rolls into their room on a hover board as we chew on a Chipotle burrito while humming the latest (insert temporarily popular band here) song.

What I am suggesting is that we see this season of their life for what it is even if they don't.

This is unconditional love at it's finest, for when they say, "I feel judged by you and everyone else" we reply, "You're always loved by me, just as you are. I may not like what you do, but I will always love you."

It's how to get your teen to start talking to you again. Here are some ways to practice it:

  • Do something that prods your own growth. Our teens are going to respond as much to how we say what we say as they will to the things we say. Our quick tones or dramatic sighs toward something they say is often less about them and more about how life is overwhelming us. If we're willing to get ahead of our feelings by doing something that makes us teachable before God, we can create margin to not be so reactive.
  • Create flexibility in your day. If we want to have a meaningful conversation with our teens, we'll need to have available time for that conversation. As our teens give off the signal that they desire to talk, we have to be willing to flex accordingly. Let's give ourselves at least a good half hour of flex in our schedules everyday so we can shift things around when the opportunity arises.
  • Rely on open-ended questions that don't smell like an agenda. If our questions begin with accusations or the word "why?" we'll find our teens more defensive than open. Instead, let's explore life with them through questions that ask what they value, how they see the friendships in their lives, who inspires them, when they feel most safe, and where they would love to end up in life.
  • Let silence be your friend. You don't have to fill every gap in the conversation with noise. In fact, sometimes letting your teen vent and simply putting your arm around him or her is better than dispensing quick wisdom. Even if you have something to offer, it may be healthier to say, "I'd like to pray about how to speak into you on this. For now, I'm just here for you and want you to know that I love you."
  • Carve out time together. Ideally, we want to aim for some sort of daily touch point with our teens. Beyond that, something special weekly is also a hot priority. You don't have to spend extravagant money on this: extravagant time and attention are more valuable. Just make sure you both shut off your phones and fully enjoy whatever you do together.
  • Know that there will be bad days. At times you're going to feel incredibly hurt by something your teen does or says, be it privately or publicly. By all means, weep over this. Find support from others around you and from God. Once you've wiped off your tears, determine to not permanently hold this against your son or daughter. You can certainly communicate how it hurt you, but then explain how you want to let it refine the relationship and not define the relationship.
  • Create some side-by-side and full-face moments. There are certain chores or activities that require you to be near each others. Make the most of these opportunities, like cooking, working on the yard, or cleaning together to catch up or have some fun. You can even crank up some music and let them know you're about to become the stereotypical parent who can't dance but is trying really hard.  Let laughter create bridges in your relationship.
  • Be a quiet host and chauffeur. One of my favorite things to do is to listen to my boys talk with their friends. There are plenty of times when I can jump in and take over the conversation or correct something, but instead I'm studying what they care about and how they think. This then shapes how I talk with my boys later. Never give away this as a source for you, though. If you do, expect that your teen and all those friends will change how conversations happen around you. 
  • Don't read into body language. Sometimes teens need to shift away or not look at you in order to tap into their feelings. Give them space to do this and eventually they'll figure out how to face you over time.

One more insight: sometimes when our teens ask a question what they really want isn't the right answer but a relationship with you.

Related: Check out our podcast on how to help your teen with anxiety at They Say podcast

It all tracks back to what we've heard about the difference between hearing and listening.

Apparently, listening is better than hearing.

Then again, maybe hearing is better than listening.

Someone probably explained it all to me once, but I wasn’t paying attention.

The bottom line is paying attention matters. I think I’ve made that clear.

What was I talking about?

Teenagers.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Avatar
    Debbie
    Reply

    I appreciate what you have written here. I did notice that you have a teenage son. Maybe everyone does not have the same experience, but I have raised 3 boys and am on my last of 2 girls. The boys were a breeze to raise compared to the two girls. Do you think this advice would help with an overemotional, drama queen teenage girl who barks at every move I make? I have tried many things and so far, I have not been able to get it right. I am not perfect by a very long jump, but me and God knows how hard I have tried. It is just seems impossible. Any suggestions???

    • Tony Myles
      Tony Myles
      Reply

      That’s a great question, Debbie! I do have two boys and a girl (who is younger), but you’re right – we have noticed that there is a difference in parenting her versus them. Things that were no-brainers for my boys have to be worked at with extra nuances with her, even at her age. I’ve seen this for many years in working with teenagers in the church, too. Girls need to be approached differently.

      And yet – the values have to remain the same. I’ve found that there’s a difference between changing our approach versus giving up on the value. Sometimes younger siblings or the minority of gender (i.e. 1 girl versus two boys) get “outs” they shouldn’t because of how they have learned to uniquely sigh or complain. We’ve had to hold that line with our daughter even on simple things like, “You can ask us why only after you’ve said yes to what we’ve asked you to do.”

      I imagine the same is true here with just simple conversations. We may have to give them the personalized freedom that our kids each need while still maintaining some anchor principles – i.e. “Phones are put away when we’re at the table” or “At least once a day, I want us to swap stories about something that has meaning in each of our lives.” Some kids will make that easier than others, but then again – that’s why we’re parenting them. 🙂

      Let me know if that makes sense or if there’s something else I can specifically try to address. I’m in the trenches, too, so maybe at best we can compare notes.

      • Avatar
        Debbie
        Reply

        Thank you so much for your reply. I see what you are saying about not letting go of the values. Todays world is so tough. It seems that the kids swirling around her in school have no values and every time I set limits on something new she wants to do, she is the only girl in school who has any limits. It is a constant battle. I try to cut up with her or just have fun and she never has anything nice to say or do. We may see a slight smile on rare occasions. I would love to be able to have some fun with her at times, but it doesn’t seem like it happens any more. Growing pains for girls are very hard. I try to sympathize with her at times as well. Being a teenager is very hard work, and being the mother of a teenager girl is very hard as well. I just keep trying and praying. I have always said, well, since my first daughter, that I wish God would have all kids born with a little booklet around their ankle that tells us what will work with this child. Of course, that is teasing, but wouldn’t it be nice? I will look back here next week to see if you have had any more to say. I can’t make it back until Monday. Have a great Easter Weekend.

        • Tony Myles
          Tony Myles
          Reply

          You sound like a good mom, Debbie. I feel your hope – that there would be a breakthrough today. With some kids (often girls) I’ve noticed is that the guard is constantly up until they have a breakdown… and that’s when the breakthrough is realized. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched “The Goldbergs” but the relationship between the mom and daughter there reminds me of what I saw between my mom and my younger sister growing up. Sometimes as our kids grow into adulthood they push back on us – which they have to do to become their own person. At some point they realize (but often don’t say, which stinks for us) how much they only got there through us. Maybe that’s the real win – not what’s working today, but how as we do right by them today – whether or not they recognize it – they will become the kind of men and women “tomorrow” that they need to be.

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