Teenagers are talked at all day long: in school, at practice, by the tutor, coach, teacher, bus driver, etc. That said, many teens develop an aversion to conversations with adults. And while I won’t advise you go radio silent on your teen, I will ask you to avoid one big trap: ill-informed questions.
Little sends teenagers into a non-listening mode more than parents who require the same, basic, foundational information prior to what should be (in the mind of the teen) be a simple conversation. This happens when you (the parent) lead with questions that have already been answered several times. However innocent, this repetition substantially decreases your teen’s willingness to engage with you. Who’s Becky again? What’s your history teacher’s name? You know, your math class, what level is it again? What day do you have X? I’m confused, what did you already email them?
To avoid this, be low-key proactive:
- Take notes, make a flowchart, login to the parent portal on the school website, rehash with your better-informed spouse or even another child.
- Work smarter in your parenting. A bit of homework on your end will expedite conversations and increase their frequency and depth of communication.
- If your teen thinks you don't know, that's where they'll keep you: on the outside. But, if they view you as informed, they will share with more frequency and detail.
And once in conversation, engage in unobstructed listening. The more you want to know teenagers, the more you need to listen.
- Listen as if you 100% believe everything they’re saying: reserve outward judgment or belief levels for another conversation. For now, simply listen, and note their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes—as if you have never met them and they are telling you this for the first time.
- Don’t give advice or commentary: The hardest part about unobstructed listening is resisting the temptation to insert your own personal anecdotes or opinions. When you interject, the talk becomes a comparison between their reality, and yours. It showcases the divide between the two of you. By simply listening, you preserve ownership for them, and the more they own the conversation, the more they’ll say.
- Articulate your active listening with expressions of sympathy, empathy, and belief: Of course, you shouldn’t just sit there in dead silence while they talk and talk. They might think you’re not interested or listening. Small statements of affirmation and understanding suggest engagement and allow you to further expand the talk. Now don’t haul off with over-the-top, inauthentic hems and haws. Be simple and succinct.
- Ask follow-up (open-ended) questions. If you want to participate in the conversation, do so by asking questions, rather than giving feedback. Just ask away, cautiously, and with purpose.
- Limit drawing parallels from your own life into their story. Try to leave the five miles in the snow for another time. Certain parallels are valid, and have a place (think times when you made a mistake or faced a similar challenge)...but teens are territorial about their talk, and a shift from them to you, can lead to an abrupt end to your time.
- Avoid filling the silence with your own words and interjections. Awkward silence is okay. Silence leaves space for them to find words, clarify and feel into their thoughts. A big mistake is caving to the silence and speaking for the sake of filling the time. If you need to say something, make it an open-ended question.