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Teen Not Talking? Here’s How To Break the Silence

Talking in the car, resisting the urge to judge and asking specific questions can help rebuild rapport

Adult in the passenger seat of car while smiling teen drives

It used to be so easy. Your kid was a chatterbox. From the moment you picked them up from school until ... pretty much the time you read them to sleep at bedtime — they told you everything that was on their mind. What happened at school. Who was nice at recess. Who was mean. What assignments they had. Your child talked to you about everything.

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Now, as a teen, it can be hard to get more than a “fine” or “OK” out of them. What can you do?

Pediatric psychologist Vanessa Jensen, PsyD, says the most important thing is to not give up trying.

Tips for talking with your teenager

Talking to teenagers is difficult for many reasons. Most teens begin to “pull away” during a time that often coincides with puberty, Dr. Jensen says. It’s also a time when their daily activities may revolve more around peers, teachers and coaches than parents.

And if things at home aren’t comfortable ― or if a child has the perception that their parents aren’t accessible ― they’ll begin to rely more on other people, she adds.

But Dr. Jensen shares nine tips for helping your teen open up to you. They may not bring the babble back, but they should help make conversing a bit easier than it might be right now.

1. Realize being a teen today isn’t the same

Today’s teens are under a lot of stress, Dr. Jensen says, because of the pace at which everything moves. Think back to when you were a teen. There was no social media. No YouTube. Forget smartphones — you may not have had your own phone at all!

Even things that seem like they’d be similar — like school — aren’t. Kids have to learn much more than we ever did to graduate. Acceptance rates for most colleges are shrinking as their costs go up. Student debt means the pressure to “figure things out” and get a good job is greater than ever before. And let’s not forget that today’s students have to contend with the threat of gun violence.

You get the picture: There will be some aspects of teen life that are difficult for parents to relate to, Dr. Jensen recognizes. Of course, you can still empathize. But it’s important to acknowledge that you don’t always know exactly what teens are going through ― just as your parents may have struggled to understand you!

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2. Setting matters

Parents can be expert jugglers. So, the chances are good that most of the conversations you have with your teen happen while you’re doing a ton of other things. But if you’re discussing their school day while doing dishes, cooking dinner, helping your 10-year-old with their homework and listening to music, you’re not giving them your undivided attention.

Sometimes, Dr. Jensen notes that parents simply don’t know how to approach difficult or sensitive topics with their teens. She says it’s sometimes helpful to start the conversation in the car.

“If you think about it, if your kid’s staring at you and you’re staring at them ― and they’re embarrassed ― they’re going to be less likely to give you the whole story,” Dr. Jensen explains. “But if you’re driving, you can’t see their face. And they don’t have to look at yours. Not having to see your reactions sometimes makes them more likely to keep talking.”

3. Keep doing things together

Look for opportunities to spend time with your teen that don’t impact their plans with friends. Offer to stop for ice cream after their late-night dress rehearsal. Invite them to tag along when you run to the hardware store. Let them stay up late from time to time to watch just one more episode of that TV show you both enjoy. If they love cooking, let them find an ambitious recipe and make a Sunday of it.

They may not always take you up on the invitation — or use your time together to share their thoughts and feelings. But that’s OK. Creating the opportunity is the key.

4. Demonstrate that you trust your teen

Striking a balance between trusting your child to be independent and keeping them safe is tough. But if your kiddo’s clamming up, it could be because they fear your response to what they have to say.

Let’s say your 16-year-old has a question about alcohol. If your response is “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “It doesn’t matter because you’re not allowed to drink,” you’re shutting down an important conversation. And whether it’s true or not, your teen may feel you don’t trust them. In the future, they may turn to their friends or the internet to answer their questions. An exchange like that may also leave your teen less likely to contact you if they — or their friends — have been drinking and shouldn’t drive home from a party.

Instead of cutting off the conversation, answer their questions and explain any house rules you have about alcohol consumption. By being open to a conversation on a sensitive topic, you’re demonstrating that you respect your child. That may not make them more likely to follow the rules, but it may make them more likely to open up to you.

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5. Ask questions in a different way

“When met with a wall of silence, some parents tend to go quiet and stop asking questions,” Dr. Jensen says. “Or if a child begins to give them an, ‘Oh, I don’t know … it’s fine,’ kind of answer, some parents feel like they shouldn’t ask further. I would encourage parents to keep the conversation going.”

When a child isn’t very forthcoming with details about their life, Dr. Jensen recommends asking in more creative ways.

Don’t just ask, “How was your day?” Instead, ask about something specific. Try asking how a certain test went. Or how their best friend is doing with their new part-time job or some other detail they may have recently (though rarely!) mentioned.

By being more particular with your questions, Dr. Jensen says it lets them know that you’re truly paying attention. And that you really did hear ― and care.

6. Practice active listening

Who’s doing most of the talking when you have a heart-to-heart with your teen?

When your child is speaking, are you really hearing them?

Everybody struggles to pay attention from time to time. Maybe you’re thinking about how you would have handled that situation. Maybe you’re trying to figure out the best way to be supportive. Maybe you’re so focused on proving a point that you’re missing the big picture.

Active listening is a skill. And like any other skill, you have to practice it. Being a good listener demonstrates respect for your child. The trust and empathy you build through active listening also increase the likelihood that your teen will use you as a sounding board in the future.

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7. Validate their feelings

Think back to when your teen was a toddler. When they fell down and scraped their knee, you’d calm them by telling them they were OK. When there was a monster under their bed, you’d let them know that there was nothing there and that they were perfectly safe. It’s a great way to reassure toddlers. Teens? Not so much.

Resist the urge to “fix” or diminish the problems your child tells you about. Here are a few examples:

  • If they’re worried about their science fair project, don’t tell them they’re going to do an incredible job. That’s only going to make your kid more anxious. Instead, tell them that it’s OK to be nervous.
  • If they’re utterly heartbroken over a breakup, don’t tell them that they’ll get over it in no time, or that you never liked that one anyway. Let your kid be heartbroken and support them as they process those emotions.
  • If they didn’t make it onto the varsity team, don’t immediately sign them up for training camps, one-on-one lessons and personal training. Give your teen time to be disappointed and let them decide what happens next.
  • If your child expresses concern about their mental health, don’t debate or question them. Get them professional help.

8. Regulate your emotions

Here’s the thing about teenagers: Their brains aren’t done growing yet. They have big feelings about serious topics, but they aren’t always going to be able to communicate them appropriately, especially if they’re upset. They may yell, make rude or hurtful comments, or storm off to sulk. You don’t have to accept unacceptable behavior, but you do need to understand it.

Your child is going to be childish from time to time. But that doesn’t mean you should respond in kind. Model good communication skills. Try not to raise your voice. Pause and take a moment to breathe if you feel overwhelmed or upset. Don’t make comments that you know will sting.

By keeping your cool, you’re demonstrating to your child that they really can talk to you about anything.

9. Know when to take a break

If a conversation is getting too heavy, too upsetting or too heated, there’s nothing wrong with taking a breather. Explain to your teen why you want to push pause. Then, together, make a plan to return to the conversation. If you don’t communicate clearly, you could come across as stonewalling.

Just keep talking (and listening!)

At the end of the day, Dr. Jensen says that it all comes down to communicating. You have to keep talking, keep listening and keep making yourself available. Even if your teen doesn’t want advice, make sure you’re always there to listen.

Not every conversation is going to be big. But little talks and a lot of short moments can add up to big benefits for your kid’s social and emotional health.

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