Ask most parents, and they’ll tell you that having a teenager to open up, more often than not, will make you feel like pulling teeth. Whether they’re avoiding interaction with you at all costs or shutting down completely when you start asking questions, finding out even the smallest information about what’s going on in your teen’s life is never easy.
But there’s still good news. With the help of experts, we’ve rounded up the best ways to get your teenager to talk to you, from fun activities to trying together, to how you can phrase the questions that they’re actually going to respond to.
Talk to them about your own childhood.
While your own childhood may not feel like it happened so long ago, your children are likely to feel the opposite. Give them a glimpse into your past, and it might just help them learn some new details about their present.
“Tell a story from your childhood—one that makes you vulnerable and shows that you’re not perfect,” says clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD. “This plants seeds of openness and vulnerability in your teen’s mind.”
After that, Manly says the ball is now in their court to offer something in return.
Ask open-ended questions.
Rather than trying to lead a conversation with your teen, try to keep your questions open to their interpretation — and accept their responses as they come.
“Ask your teen a few open-ended questions such as, ‘How is your best friend doing?’, ‘What’s happening with those drawings I saw you working on last?’ or ‘I’m feeling stir-crazy. How about you?'” suggests Manly.
Have them participate in preparing family meals.
Although they might not be able to go to their favorite restaurants— or even get all the food they’d like in the grocery store— getting a say in what you buy and cook at home may give your teen a sense of control in these unpredictable times.
“Invite your teen to share in cooking, shopping, or dinner prep by saying, ‘What are a few things you’d like to see on the dinner menu?'” suggests Manly. “When teens feel included and relevant, they often share naturally.”
Don’t scold them in the same way you would a younger child.
Although having your children talk about certain subjects may make you feel uncomfortable, don’t castigate them when they choose to open up on themes that are important to them.
“If a teen says or does something inappropriate, don’t criticize them, but do uphold family values,” says Manly. “If a teen is upset or irritable, simply say something like, ‘It sounds like you’re upset’ or ‘I really appreciate what you have to say. I’ll be able to take in your message better when the swearing is left out.'”
Don’t force them to see the positive in everything.
It’s convenient to tell your kids that every cloud has a silver lining or to tell them that everything’s going to be fine, but doing so can be seen as dismissive of their feelings and emotions, especially in unprecedented situations like the outbreak of COVID-19.
“This is well-meaning; however, it gives the child a feeling of not being heard which inevitably can close them off from communicating,” says licensed mental health counselor Catherine G. Cleveland, owner of Cleveland Emotional Health. Cleveland notes that not trying to change how they feel “invites them to be more open to sharing.”
Do back-and-forth journaling together.
Journaling is a personal experience— but that doesn’t mean you can’t share it with your children. Therapist Stephanie Longtain, LCSW, co-founder of the Human State of Mind Counseling, suggests that this non-confrontational method of communication allows parents and teenagers to open up to each other.
“The parent writes an entry to their teenager—it can include questions, thoughts, ideas, feedback—and the teenager responds and it continues back and forth,” explains Longtain. “This reduces pressure and makes it easier to broach certain topics that may be uncomfortable to discuss in person.”
Show an interest in their hobbies.
Even if they’re not exactly your idea of a good time, taking part in your teen’s favorite activities with them is a great way to build a greater connection with them — especially with all the spare time you’re likely to have while in quarantine.
“It’s easier to talk about something you have in common (lifting weights, your favorite band or TV show, or a creative pursuit) than talking about how things were at school,” says Longtain who notes that they’re also more inclined to choose to spend some time with you when you do something they enjoy.
Let them show you how to do something.
Just because you want to be a role model for your children doesn’t mean you can’t be vulnerable, either.
“There is something about allowing your teenager to see you fail and/or your weaknesses that levels the playing field,” says Longtain. “They will see you as more human and less parent.” For example, Longtain suggests, let your child help you choose your outfits or show you how to use a new app, depending on their particular interests.
Open up without crossing boundaries.
Being honest about your own problems, about how your working life has changed since home orders hit your concerns about the safety of older family members, can also create an opportunity for your children to discover their own weaknesses.
“Model using self-disclosure with your kids and use feeling language when you’re doing it,” Lyons says. “Let them know when you feel happy, proud, and even worried.” Nevertheless, she warns against too much transparency, mentioning that you should still be modeling the proper boundaries for your relationship.
Be quiet during car rides.
Taking a car ride with your teenager could be one of the only ways that any of you will get out of the house during a pandemic. Even though it may seem like an excellent opportunity to ask your child all kinds of questions, remaining silent may actually be more beneficial if you want them to start opening up to you.
“When you’re quiet during a car ride, the ride can become almost meditative, which can help them get into their thoughts,” explains licensed psychologist Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group. “If you sit quietly, they are allowed to formulate their thoughts and then begin to talk.”
Ask unexpected questions.
Don’t ask your children the same questions over and over and expect different responses.
“No more ‘how was your day…what did you do in school today…how are you doing?'” says David Simonsen, PhD, LMFT. If anything, he advises asking what makes them happy, what makes them sad, or what makes them anxious to get a better understanding of who your child is like as a person.
Avoid asking “why” questions.
Instead of asking your child why, consider asking them to talk about their emotions.
“When we use the word why when asking others questions, it implies a sense of judgment, which puts others on the defensive,” says psychotherapist Ryan G. Beale, founder and chief executive officer of Prepare U and Therapy Live.
Even if you’re restricted to walking around the neighborhood or some wind sprints in your back yard, having your blood pumping by doing something fun with your teen will get those conversations started in no time.
“When they are actively involved in other tasks, including [ones that] are physically challenging, or competitive, they are less self-conscious,” says drama therapist Yaela Orelowitz. “This diverted attention will often lead to a more trusting expression of self and vulnerability.”
Engage them on their home turf.
Although it might be convenient to hold court in your kitchen or bedroom, spending quality time with them anywhere they ‘re comfortable with is a better option.
“If your teen spends a lot of time in [their] bedroom, drop by, flop on the bed, and talk about what they are doing right then,” says Dallas-based neuropsychologist Michelle Bengtson. “If they are watching TikTok, ask them to show you their favorites, then comment on them, and ask questions like, ‘what makes it your favorite?'”
Ask them for their help.
Kids love feeling important, so try asking them to help you do something to keep them engaged and make them feel needed.
“When our kids are involved in activities, and they aren’t being watched or under the spotlight, they’re more likely to open up and converse,” says Bengtson, who suggests making them do some house work with you to give the opportunity to reveal their feelings.
Ask what their friends are talking about.
It might not always be easy for your kids to talk directly about what’s going on with them, but asking them how their friends are doing can be a great icebreaker to start a discussion.
“This is especially important during our current pandemic,” says Michelle Nietert, a licensed professional counselor based in Dallas. “Ask what their friends are worried about, or concerned about. As they share what’s going on with their friends, parents will get a better idea of what’s going on in their own teen’s world.”
Don’t react emotionally to the things they share with you.
If you want your teenager to open up to you, it is in your best interest— and theirs— to maintain a neutral posture, regardless of what they say, particularly at a time when emotions are likely to increase.
“If we react calmly and simply ask again the next day, we are modeling the behavior that they will eventually adapt,” Hans Watson, DO, a neuropsychiatrist and psychotherapist at University Elite PLLC. “If you react with anger, the teen’s defenses will raise and hamper future communication.”
Don’t try to teach lessons in every interaction.
It may be tempting to try to transmit your wisdom to your children when you talk to them, but holding it back every now and then will end up serving you better in the long run.
“By being willing to teach a lesson over many interactions, a teen will start to trust more and communication will increase,” says Watson, who mentions that teenagers’ front lobes are still evolving and do not benefit from single lessons on their own.
While you may feel sad when your child refuses to open up to you at first, that doesn’t mean you should lose hope.
“Even though teenagers often give answers that don’t offer any real information, the daily inquiry demonstrates that you care and are likely a trusted individual in their life,” says Watson.
Share with them a time you made a mistake.
You may be reluctant to admit your wrong doings to your children, but to let them know that you’re fallible may actually be the best way of getting them to reveal their inner workings to you.
“Tell your teenager a story about you where you admit you made a mistake and what you learned from it,” suggests human behavior expert Patrick Wanis, PhD. “When you choose to open up and share your humanness, your imperfections, mistakes and regrets, you are demonstrating vulnerability and indirect acceptance.”
Do an art project together.
A little imagination could be all it takes to get your kids to start communicating— but then again, who can’t use a fun distraction right now?
“Have them help you create a Spotify playlist. If you have paint, have them paint an object or free paint on a piece of paper/canvas,” suggests Sarah Roffe, LCSW, CCLS, a psychotherapist and co-founder of Kind Minds Therapy.
Admit that you don’t know what they’re going through.
Just because you used to be a teenager doesn’t mean that you really know what your kid’s going through.
“We all have a desire to connect based on shared experiences, but most of us have not had our high school experience abruptly cut short, or prom canceled,” says Pamela Schuller, a teen mental health expert and director of The Jewish Board’s Here. Now program. Her recommendation? “Instead of telling them it will be okay, validate that it’s painful and frustrating,” she says.
Ask what they need.
Sometimes it’s easy to find out what your kids feel— and what they need from you. You just have to ask, it’s really that simple.
“Ask your teen what they need and what would help them feel the most supported,” suggests Schuller, also noting that adults are frequently too solutions-oriented when trying to deal with them. “There are situations in which they just need to feel what they are feeling and sit in the sadness, uncertainty, or disappointment.”