“How was school?”
“What did you do?”
If this sounds familiar, join the club! Not only do I have two teenagers, but I’ve interviewed and surveyed about 3,000 of them for For Parents Only and other books, and discovered that the condition homo teenagesapiens silenticus (otherwise known as “being a teenager who is uninformatively silent”) affects many members of the adolescent species. Often, when we most want them to share!
But I’ve also discovered that there is a way to crack open the floodgate of words. Actually, there are lots of ways… more than we can cover here. But two crucial tactics make a huge difference, overall. Without these, it will be harder for any other efforts to work. With these, you have a much greater chance of hearing what’s in your child’s heart over time.
1. No matter how aloof your teens seem to be, force yourself to remember that they want you to be part of their lives – and do the work to get there. The kids told me they secretly wanted their parents to be a part of their world. They would never say that out loud, of course! But almost all (94%) said that if they could wave a magic wand, the perfect situation would be one in which their parents actively worked to be involved with them.
I heard hundreds of examples of what that could look like – anything from regularly texting about their day, to a willingness to play video games (“especially when I know gaming isn’t really my mom’s thing!”) – but there was a clear common denominator: we need to reach out to them. We must insert ourselves into their life, their world, their way of doing things, rather than expecting them to jump into ours. If your 13-year-old daughter communicates with her friends primarily via social media apps and text, then make a point of reaching out to her that way. If your 17-year-old son always has on a pair of headphones, listening to music, ask him to let you know when he gets to one of his favorite songs so you can listen in.
Even if you have a difficult relationship right now, those efforts can pay big dividends later. One teenage boy described years of poor life choices and how his parents always showed they were there for him, no matter what. As a result, he realized, “I need my parents. I need their assurance, their backup, their support.” He also realized something else I heard from many kids, “[And] because they’ve been there, I can talk with them about anything.”
2. No matter what you hear from your child: remain completely, utterly calm. Our kids often self-censor the “real” things they might otherwise share, depending on what they expect of our reaction. There’s a very real twitchiness about whether Mom or Dad will freak out. And “freaking out,” by the way, included not just a parent’s negative reactions, but energetically positive ones. So while cheering her great shot on goal is fine, excitedly saying “What an awesome idea!” about her plans to organize a picnic before prom is not.
In other words: freaking out is any obvious display of emotion during a conversation.
Thus, one of the most crucial tools in your “how to get your kid to talk” toolbox is your ultra-calm demeanor. No matter what you hear from your daughter about her best friend driving drunk, or from your son about how cruel the basketball coach was to him, keep your voice level and your facial expressions in the “politely interested” to “politely concerned” range. No one expects us to be robots. But if you can keep “politely concerned” on your face (even though you want to rage about the coach instead), your son is far more likely to share about what happens at practice tomorrow. And the next day. And pretty soon, you’ve built a habit between you, of him sharing more and more of what is going on. Because he knows what to expect from you and that it‘s safe to share.
We want our kids to share with us. And on their side, they want to share. Try those two tactics, and see how it creates a win-win for everyone.
Helping people thrive in life and relationships is Shaunti Feldhahn’s driving passion, supported by her research projects and writing. After starting out with a Harvard graduate degree and experience on Wall Street, her life took an unexpected shift into relationship research. She now is a popular speaker around the world and the author of best-selling books about men, women, and relationships. (Including The Kindness Challenge, demonstrates that kindness is the answer to almost every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.