Talking with Teens

Image: Jan Fidler
By Martha Chan, LMFT
Site Director at Terman Middle School

We hear from many parents that, at some point, children stop talking at home; in some families, it happens at age 10, in others not till age 14 or 15.  In a typical scenario, a middle school or high school student is asked “How was school today?”; the response is “fine” or an unintelligible noise, and the student disappears into his/her bedroom, leaving the parent frustrated.  In many families, children have lots of stories to tell while they’re in preschool and elementary school, often in more detail than parents can remember.  It helps that, in elementary school, parents often know their child’s one teacher, five best friends, and the parents of those friends, so we feel we have a good sense of what goes on in our child’s day.  Then THE CHANGE occurs, often beginning when our child transitions into middle school.  Suddenly, we’re trying to remember the names of all their teachers and the subjects they teach; we don’t know all their new friends; and we probably don’t know the parents of these friends.  On top of that, our children don’t tell us those stories anymore, and we miss them.

One of my favorite books in my own early parenting days was How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk; looking back, I think the second half of the title may be the most important part.  Strange as this idea seems, it’s the first and largest step.

If we want our teens to listen to us, we may have to model being a good listener for them, just as we model good driving habits and table manners.  What I have heard from hundreds of teens in my years of counseling work is that they feel the need to be listened to, and to have their opinions respected, even when a parent may disagree with them.  Often they want to be able to talk about a problem without having a parent immediately offer advice; they may feel they can solve the problem eventually on their own, but they want to talk it through with you.  This is a good thing!

One of my former supervisors described the teen years as a time when kids are “trying on different hats,” sometimes on a daily basis.  This can be confusing for the adults around them, as we tend to be more settled in our attitudes and behavior; for teens, it’s part of testing the waters to see who they really want to be and what they really believe.  A parent’s role can be to act as a sounding board, just listening and reflecting as your child talks about a political, ethical, fashion or friendship issue, rather than jumping to the conclusion that he or she is about to do something dreadful.  Again, if your child is talking with you about what he or she is thinking and feeling, you are doing something right.

A tactic that I had to learn early in my counseling career, which came in handy when I became a parent, was to figure out how to ask a question that is hard to answer with a Yes, No or one-word response.   For example, instead of asking “How was school?” try asking “I’d like to hear about your day – – what was the best thing that happened?”, which can still result in a “Nothing happened” response, but it invites conversation.  You might try asking a question that has a natural follow-up:

Parent: “Am I remembering right, that you had a math test today?”
Student: “Yeah”
Parent: “How do you think you did?”  (Notice that you aren’t asking what grade he/she is likely to receive.)

Student may still respond minimally:  “OK” or “Terrible”, but as a parent, you’ve shown that you paid attention to the details of your child’s life, beyond the how-was-school level.

Many families have a tradition of sitting down to dinner together when children are younger, so that all family members have a chance to talk about how their day has been.  This often gets lost as children’s schedules get busy, parents’ work changes, and many other demands arise.  However, it’s always good to either establish or continue the family meal, at least a few nights a week, and model the behavior you would like to see in your children.  I was once told by an elementary teacher at back-to-school night that the three most important things parents can do to improve their child’s academic success are to see that they have enough sleep, have family meals together, and turn off all electronics during the meal – no television, no internet, no cell phones, for the adults as well as the children.

As parents, we sometimes become anxious about our children’s futures when they reach adolescence, and feel that we have to impart all our wisdom to them before they graduate from high school.  This results in teens feeling they are being “talked at” rather than being “talked with”; usually the more we really listen, the more our teens may be encouraged to talk.  Give it a try – – hopefully, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!