How to Talk to a Teenager & Get Your Teenager to Talk to You
Teenagers are rapidly changing and can seemingly morph into an entirely different person in the blink of an eye - they keep parents on their toes, and sometimes leave parents wondering what they are doing. It is especially difficult to know what to do when things get challenging.
Teens are developing their independence, figuring out their identity, navigating hormones, and trying to understand their social world. One of the most frequent questions parents ask is: How do I talk to my teen? This is a tough time for teens and parents, and by keeping the lines of communication open, parents can deepen their relationship with their teen and foster conversations about many topics.
Here are 10 steps to help you talk to your teenager and get your teenager to talk to you:
1. Keep talking to your teenager.
Even if it seems that your teen does not want to talk to you, never stop talking to them. Although it may not seem like it, they are always listening. If you ask them every day how school was and you are only met with a grunt, continue asking. Ask about classes, friends, hobbies, interests, and anything your teen is interested in. By keeping that door open with them they will see that you care, you are not giving up, and you are leaving space for them when they need and are ready to talk.
2. Have conversations about the things they enjoy.
Be genuine, even if it means talking about stuff you know nothing about or aren’t particularly interested in yourself. Just be interested in your teen. You can talk about sports, video games, hobbies, and their upcoming plans. This sends a message of “I care” and “I am truly interested in the things that are going on in your life”. Again, don’t stop trying even if you only get mumbles or one-word answers.
3. Be present and pay attention.
Your teen needs to be heard. They want to, like anyone else, share their adventures, perspectives, and experiences with someone who is listening and actually hearing them. This is not the time to check email, play on your phone, or think about your response. Sit with your child, be present with them, and truly listen. This sends the message to your teen they are important, and you want to hear what they are saying.
4. Respect what your teen has to say.
This can be tough, especially if what your teen is saying worries you or is contradictory to what you are thinking. However, we want to keep the door open and the environment safe so our teens are comfortable approaching us. Do not dismiss or criticise their thoughts, ideas, or opinions. It is important teens always have an open, safe door to walk through, and nothing shuts the door faster than shame and blame. Listen and talk from a place of non-judgment and let them know you are taking their worries seriously.
5. Be ready for tough conversations.
Difficult topics like drugs, alcohol, sex, gender, identity, self-esteem, self-harm, and relationships will come up. Your teen needs a safe place to land when they have questions, fears, and experiences around these issues. It may be helpful to think about the tough conversations you may need to have so you can be ready when it’s time to talk. When you’re prepared, you are less likely to react with criticism, judgment, or your own embarrassment.
6. Keep your comments short and sweet.
Don’t expect to have long, deep conversations with your child all the time. Keep any guidance brief so your teen can stay focused. It is about the quality and consistency of the conversations, not the duration. Teens will also likely tune out adults who are lecturing or scolding within moments of the conversations starting. Lecturing may also hinder your teen from coming to you the next time they want to talk about something difficult, especially if they feel like they made a mistake or did something wrong.
7. Listen before you give advice or offer to help.
Parents often want to guide or help their teen, however, balance is needed. Teens need to figure things out on their own sometimes and talking it through may be all they need. If you offer advice too fast, they may become discouraged. Before you start making suggestions, a great question to ask your teen when they ask if they can talk is: “Do you want me to listen or do you want advice?” This allows your teen to set the stage and allows for a smoother, more productive conversation.
8. Keep calm and take a break if you need to.
Despite your best intentions, these conversations can become heated as emotions rise. Regulate yourself, and if you feel things are getting elevated, the conversation is no longer productive, or voices are being raised, pause and suggest a break until everyone has calmed. Yelling is not productive and can hinder further conversations. Make some rules about when to take breaks with your teen when you are both calm, so everyone knows what to expect if the situation arises.
9. Set regular times to chat.
A regular or scheduled time to talk is a great way to build in the space to have genuine talks. Although they may not always show it, quality time is valuable to your teen. Driving to activities or errands is a great time to chat with your teen and they are not otherwise distracted or don’t feel the same pressure side-to-side without eye contact. Make sure any difficult conversations are in person, too much is lost through text messages and your teen needs to see you making the time to be with them and listen.
10. Hang out with your teenager.
Teens don’t always want to talk! Connection comes in many forms and can reinforce the foundation of your relationship with your teen. Have them join you on a walk, have lunch together, play video games together, play ball, or watch a movie or show together. The possibilities are endless! This is a great time to enjoy one another's company, helps you get to know the person your teen is becoming, and further opens the door if your teen wants to talk to you about what is on their mind
Pay attention to your teenager - the more you watch and listen, the more you will hear. This will help you to better understand when things seem off with your teen. By keeping the door open, no matter how difficult it is to get your teen talking, the opportunity is always present for them to engage. Children change as they enter their teenage years and sometimes it is hard to figure out if you should be worried or if how they are acting is normal.
Some things to watch for in your teen are:
Changes in grades or disinterest in activities
Isolating themselves or big changes with friendships
Significant weight loss or gain
Signs of drug or alcohol use
Extreme changes in sleep patterns/sleep difficulties
Excessive use of technology (social media, video games, phones)
Getting in trouble more often (possibly with the law)
Parenting advice is everywhere. You need to take what works for you and leave the rest behind. Families come in all shapes and sizes, with different communication styles, and different dynamics. Give a new strategy a try or go back to one you have used in the past and see if it works now. As we grow, what works changes. If something does not work, that is okay. All it means is that strategy didn’t work and it may be time to try another.
It is also okay to reach out for help. Connecting with an empathetic therapist, in an environment where judgement has no place, is a great way to acknowledge, decipher, and problem solve the many different facets of parenthood.
These years are a time to embrace the many opportunities for growth your teen will have. It is also important to remember, now, more than ever, they need the adults in their life – even if they declare they do not. Let them stumble, let them flourish, let them need you, and let them fly! The teenage years are confusing for parents and teens alike. Be kind to yourself, keep talking to your teen, give them a safe space to fall, and you will make it through these years before you know it.
Bonnie Kelly is a social worker and clinical counsellor specializing in working with families and teens struggling with identity, gender, relationships, and school. She is passionate about helping people better understand and express themselves, find their strengths, connect, and thrive. Bonnie provides affirming online therapy for individuals, families, and couples in Calgary and across Alberta, especially for neurodiverse, gender diverse, and 2SLGTBQIA+ folks.