How Do You Get Them to Talk?

by Martha Chan, LMFT,
Site Director for Terman Middle School

I recently attended a workshop for therapists and social workers, and I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me that I work with teenagers in a school-based counseling program.  She looked surprised and a bit uneasy, and asked, “How do you get them to talk to you?”  My easy, in-the-moment answer was, “You listen.”

Thinking afterwards about this exchange, I realized that getting our own children to talk with us when they become teenagers is a definite challenge.  Gone is the 2-year-old who wanted to tell you everything that happened at preschool, or the 6-year-old who confided in you about who had hurt her feelings that day, or the 8-year-old who tells you what nice thing the teacher said to him.  In our work at Adolescent Counseling Services, we frequently hear from parents that they feel shut out of their teens’ lives, and they worry about the lack of communication.

On the other hand, we often hear from adolescents that they are tired of parents’ questions about school, friends and other topics which the teens now consider to be their own business.  A typically unsatisfying parent-child exchange is:  “How was school today?”  “Fine”, after which the teenager disappears into her bedroom, gets on the computer or cell phone, and is not seen again until dinnertime.  One suggestion we often make to parents is that they try to ask more specific questions.  Thanks to the internet, most parents have access to information about their students’ school, from specific classes their teen is taking to sports and other extracurricular activities.  Rather than asking whether the homework is done (another question that teens dislike), a parent might ask, “How was your math quiz today?”, or “I see that your school has a _________ club – – – have you thought about joining?”, or “If you’re planning to go to the dance, let me know whether you’ll need a ride.”

Listening can be a challenge for many of us; as parents, we have accumulated wisdom and experience we would like to impart to our children, to save them from having to make the same mistakes we did or that we saw our friends make.  And once we start talking, we often keep going in hope that our teenager will make some response, join in the conversation, or otherwise acknowledge that he is listening.  In the absence of a response, we may start repeating ourselves, not sure that what we’re saying is being taken in and understood.  This is what teens refer to as “lecturing”.  Parents usually see this as giving information, direction, a request or clarification of a rule or consequence. If there is something important that you want to say to your son or daughter, try to construct as succinct a statement as possible; deliver your statement; then wait.

You may not get a response in the moment, or in the same day, but it’s important that you trust that your message was received.  Sometimes, with luck, you will hear your teenager repeating the same information or advice to a friend or younger sibling, days later, as though it were her own original thinking.  You won’t get credit for it until your child is twenty or more, but you will know that you did your job and that your child heard you.

Many parents have found that conversations in the car can be very different from conversations at home.  You are driving, your eyes are on the road, and your teen is free from your direct, inquiring gaze.  Sometimes he will just start talking about whatever is on his mind in the moment, and you will just listen.  Driving your son or daughter with friends can be very informative as well:  ideally, you are driving and the teens are behind you, where they often behave as though there were a chauffeur’s glass barrier between you and them.  You may hear things you wish you didn’t know, and your child will probably talk less than the friends; again, your job is to listen, not to participate in the conversation.

Talking with other parents to learn what works for them can be helpful; there are also excellent books with real-world guidance; for example, I often recommend Staying Connected to Your Teenager; How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying, by Michael Riera, Ph.D.

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