9 Tips to Keep the Conversation Flowing with your Teen

For many parents, just getting their teen talking can be a challenge, let alone engaged in an entire conversation. Although this experience may be frustrating, it is important to remember that teens may be shifting their communication style but still need (and want) to connect with you. This week’s post provides parents with tips to get, and keep, the conversation going!

Does it sometimes seem like your cheerful, talkative child evolved into an aloof teen almost overnight? Are grunts and shrugs part of many conversations?

If so, you’ve got company. For many adolescents, these quiet, introspective periods are actually a normal part of development. Instead of feeling disrespected, we can use this time to build stronger relationships with our teens.

Here are some ways to stay connected.

1. Don’t take it personally.  Your child hasn’t stopped loving you. As bodies and brains prepare for adulthood, it’s normal for teens to feel in need of a little distance from parents. They still need you and want to talk—just not 24/7.

2. Understand.  People used to blame teen moodiness on “attitude” but research now tells us there are important differences between teen and adult brains. These differences can impact emotions and how teens react to stressors. This may help explain why some teens need more time to withdraw and reflect. Be patient. If you allow a little space now, your teen will probably be more receptive to talking later.

3. Be available. Pay attention and notice when your child seems ready to talk. Is she hovering in the kitchen as you make dinner?  Does he plop down nearby when you curl up on the couch with your novel?  Seize the moment. Set your book down or put dinner on the back burner and take a few minutes to catch up.

4. Resist advice. Nothing puts the brakes on a good talk like unwelcome suggestions. When your teen shares something negative about his day (like “I really screwed up on my test…”), what he probably wants is empathy–not advice. Instead of offering tips on the study skills that worked when you were his age (yawn),  try something like: “You sound disappointed; tell me about it…” When we feel understood, we often feel like opening up further.

5. Limit questions.  Too many questions like “How was school?” “How was your test?” or “Who did you hang out with?” can also be conversation stoppers. Instead, try sharing something briefly about your own day—something that moved you or made you laugh or an embarrassing moment. When we share a bit of ourselves, it opens the door for others to share.

6. Cut ‘em some slack. Don’t assume that you and your teen are necessarily on the same page. What your teen thinks is important (friends, clothes) may not be what you think is important (grades, safety).Plus research shows that teens are more likely to  misread facial expressions and social cues  than adults. They may interpret your expression of worry as one of anger or hear your normal voice as a scolding tone, so be patient and know they don’t always get you either.

7.  Hold onto family meals. Research shows that regular family meals are related to a number of positive outcomes for youth. When we sit down to dinner face-to- face, it’s easier to relax and tune into each other’s emotions, not just our words. Don’t be discouraged if once in a while your teen sits through a meal in stony silence. The mealtime habit still matters. It means family members can count on a time and place to connect on a regular basis.

8. Notice if things get too quiet. Normal day-to-day moodiness is different than depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. If your teen seems extremely withdrawn or if moods are impacting school or other activities, consult a doctor or mental health professional.  Many young people can use extra support during these vulnerable years.

9. Lighten up. The teen years can be intense for parents and kids. Find something you both enjoy laughing about and build it into your daily routine. It could be a funny TV show, book or simply finding the humor in everyday life.

Share your own ideas. What are the best ways you’ve found to connect with your teen?


Liz L photo for ParentheticalArticle by Elizabeth Lexau

Elizabeth is a Family Living Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Extension.  Her programs focus on helping families build strength and resilience through parenting and relationship skills.  She lives near Lake Superior with her husband and two teenage daughters.