No, I’m not advocating interrogation tactics to get your teen to talk. But there are ways to encourage teens to disclose their thoughts, deepest fears, plans, and dreams. They need to share these with you, but the sharing has to be on their terms. Your task is to create situations that allow them to talk.1
When we moved into a new house recently, I finally had the open-plan kitchen and dining area I’d always wanted. I pulled out the rocking chair that I'd used when my boys were young and put it in a corner close to the workspace. I remembered sitting in a rocking chair in our farmhouse kitchen as a teen, spilling out my troubles to my mother while she cooked dinner. She often had her back to me as she washed veggies, chopped, sautéed, and bent over the oven. But she didn’t miss a single detail, and responded sympathetically amidst her activity.
My mother’s trick works.
I’ve already had several “sessions” with my youngest teen in the rocking chair while I busied myself in the kitchen. Like sitting in the car together (as long as it’s not your teen who’s driving), or walking, there’s something about the gentle motion of the rocker that loosens a teen’s tongue. Or perhaps it’s due to not being in direct eye contact, which teens—like other primates—can see as a threat.
Whatever the reason, these talking activities will do wonders for your relationship with your teen.2 When they finally do start talking, however, be sure that you increase the flow rather than shutting it down with the following techniques:3
1. Really, REALLY listen. With a teen, your listening time should far outstrip your talking time.
2. To show your teen you’re truly listening, backchannel your teen’s words occasionally—not repeating everything they say, of course, but repeating some key phrases here and there, with a questioning intonation to make sure you’ve got it right. “It was Julia who said that, right?” “You’re thinking that Mike is angry with you?”
3. Summarize every now and then to make sure you’re understanding. “So you don’t like English class, and you think the teacher has it in for you.” Don’t evaluate—at least right now.
4. Ask an occasional question. It’s okay to be somewhat probing, but tread carefully. “Have you thought about…?” “What does X think about Y?” “What will you do if X happens?”
5. Ask about emotions. Young teens still have some work to do in understanding the causes and consequences of their own and others’ emotions.4 “How did you feel when she said that?”
6. Evaluate and give advice extremely sparingly. “What if you…?” “Have you tried…” The act of disclosure alone will help your teen sort out the problem—don’t try to solve it completely for them. More than likely, if your teen is disclosing to you, they already know what they should do. Heavy-handed advice will only make them less likely to disclose in the future.
Remember that your relationship with your teen is still vitally important for their development and their well-being.5 Even if they seem not to need you anymore, they do. The way you communicate with them at this crucial age is just as important, and possibly even more important, than it was when they were younger. Good communication can maintain and strengthen a relationship, and can even turn around a relationship that has gotten shaky.
So keep them rocking, and keep them talking.
1Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2005). How to talk so teens will listen & listen so teens will talk. Harper Audio.
2Smetana, J. G., Villalobos, M., Tasopoulos-Chan, M., Gettman, D. C., & Campione-Barr, N. (2009). Early and middle adolescents' disclosure to parents about activities in different domains. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 693-713.
3Reese, E. (2013). Tell me a story: Sharing stories to enrich your child’s world. NY: Oxford.
4Fivush, R., Marin, K., McWilliams, K., & Bohanek, J. G. (2009). Family reminiscing style: Parent gender and emotional focus in relation to child well-being. Journal of Cognition and Development, 10, 210-235.
5Nada Raja, S., McGee, R., & Stanton, W. R. (1992). Perceived attachments to parents and peers and psychological well-being in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21, 471-485.