Some parenting experts say that connecting with a teen is like trying to hug a porcupine. In other words, it’s just not easy. One-word answers, eye rolls, and shrugs might be some of the replies you are used to receiving from your teen on any given day. But if we encourage and receive active engagement from our teens, we might find them responding with effusive hugs, detailed verbal replies, and enthusiastic sharing. And aren’t those meaningful connections so satisfying?
How do we make communicating with our teens more consistently positive, purposeful, and genuinely engaging? The ideas below should get you started on your way to better communication with your teenager.
Hearing is one thing, but listening is quite another. Hearing is a passive action whereby words and sounds are absorbed by your ears. But listening, on the other hand, requires work, practice, and concentration. Active participation is necessary for an exchange. So how can you be a better listener? It might seem easy, but it is actually a skill you need to learn and practice. You need to be present, focus on your child, and listen to every single word. Look her in the eye and absorb what she is saying.
When you listen, put your technology away, offer good eye contact, consider touching your teen’s hand or arm to physically connect (if that is comfortable), and be at your teen’s same physical level. For example, if she is on the couch, go sit with her; if he is sitting at the kitchen counter and having a conversation with you, join him. Nod your head; respond with “uh-huh,” “tell me more,” or other supportive and encouraging phrases; and whatever you do, don’t just jump in with any solutions if what he is discussing with you is a problem.
Let your teen share and share and share until he indicates how he might want you to reply. Perhaps he will ask you a question or pause. Silence is okay. Before you answer, ask him if he wants your opinion or if he just wants to unload while you listen. If you follow these simple steps, your teen will feel valued and heard.
Ask Good Questions
Asking the right questions elicits productive dialogue and also empowers your teen. Do you automatically and almost robotically ask the daily questions “How was school today?” or “How did you do on your test today?” Instead, try asking better, open-ended questions so that you can draw out more meaningful content that yields more thoughtful responses. Don’t be lazy and ask a flat question. Instead, try some of these:
- Can you tell me one thing you learned today?
- When were you the happiest today?
- When were you bored today?
- What was one thing you read/learned at school today?
- What did you laugh about today?
- What was something good that happened today?
- Which class is your easiest and which is your hardest?
- Which teacher do you like the best (this week) and why? And the least?
Drop Everything When There is an Invitation to Connect
If your teen ever asks you to play a game, do a puzzle, watch a show, go for a walk, or bake/cook together, do everything in your power to drop what you are doing and engage. As your kids get older, these shared experiences become fewer and farther between, so when your teen initiates this kind of connection, make sure to jump on the opportunity. If, on the other hand, you are the one initiating the shared activities and you don’t get the affirmation that you hope for, don’t take it personally. Just know that another opportunity will present itself in a few hours, days, or maybe a bit longer. Be patient.
Share Truths about Yourself
Revealing stories from your own life and how they may relate to your teen is important for building deeper connections. Sharing mistakes that you made in your childhood, funny memories of your teenage foibles, and even academic and social hardships that you encountered not only makes you seem more human to your teen but also demonstrates that you can relate to her life stage. You appear less ancient when you share your stories. That said, there’s a better way to do this than just droning on with “I remember the time when . . .” See if you can locate photos, yearbooks, clothes, or even old songs from your teenage years that reflect what your experience was when you were in their shoes. Sharing these mementos will connect you and deepen your teen’s understanding of you as more relatable and less “parental.”
Love the Teen You Have In Front of You
Finally, one of the most important messages that you can impart on your teen—and the message that will elicit the deepest connection between you—is to love them unconditionally. Whether they are similar or very different from you socially, physically, academically, or in the interests they pursue, remember that this is their turn to be a teen. You had your turn.
Love and celebrate what makes your teen excited and happy—even if it’s not exactly what made you excited and happy when you were that age. If these differences are especially great, try to view them as opportunities to learn from your teen, and seek connections wherever you can make them. Most of all, appreciate the gift that is right in front of you with all of your heart and mind. Being a teenager is tough. We all know it. Let’s love our teens no matter what and as deeply as we humanly can.
Cindy Muchnick, Co-Author of The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive Landscape is a graduate of Stanford University and has been working in education for the past 25+ years as a former Assistant Director of College Admission, high school teacher, educational consultant, and author of five other education-related books. She speaks professionally to parents, students, teachers, and businesses on topics such as study skills, the adolescent journey, college admission, and now the parent compass movement.