How to get your teenager to open up to you

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor and a mother of three. She knows teenagers. Here she shares her advice on getting your teenage child to open up.

A very wise 15 year old once said ‘We’re just worried about being judged and sometimes don’t know what to say or how to say it.  Our parents need to show us or tell us that we can tell them.’

It’s not rocket science, I suppose; most teenagers want some assurance they’re going to be safe, respected, and supported before they choose to open up to the adults in their lives.  It’s important for parents in particular to realise, though, that teenagers won’t automatically assume those things about talking with you.  Sometimes they have good reason to believe sharing is more likely to lead to conflict than to comfort; sometimes it’s our own behaviour that has led to such a belief. As key adults in their lives, we need to create a relationship with our teenagers which fosters open communication and supportive interactions.

It may be easier said than done, especially if communication between you has typically been tricky, but examining the way you approach your teenager and the attitudes you hold about adolescents and their place in the world can help you to make the changes needed to create a safe and supportive sharing environment and to have effective conversations.

Take the lead, but don’t put too much pressure on.

’Tis a tightrope we’re walking, this parenting thing.  Sway too far either way and you’re going to get a wobble on or plummet into certain doom.  There is a balance to be struck, as with any relationship, between pressure and support.  Teenagers want to know you’re available, but they don’t want to feel compelled to talk.  They’re grateful if you ask questions to help with understanding, but will retreat to the safety of small talk if you start grilling them for details.  There is a vast difference between conversation and interrogation and teenagers are quick to notice when you turn the spotlight on.

A little bit of understanding goes a long way

Stephen Fry, whose turbulent young life held few hints of the success and wisdom he has gone on to achieve, wrote ‘No adolescent ever wants to be understood, which is why they complain about being misunderstood all the time’ (Moab Is My Washpot, 1997).  While I’m a fan of many of his pearls, this is one I’m not buying.

Yeah, okay, there’s complaining.  Ranging in intensity from bellyaching to lament, it’s a feature of many conversations with teens; they assume most adults don’t get where they’re coming from, and the most unhappy feel a similar disconnection from their peers.  Young people are generally hyper-aware of others’ opinions and responses, and many find the thought or actuality of their actions and ideas being misunderstood a source of anxiety and frustration.  Many have good reason to complain, just as we all do at times.

Underlying the gripes and angst is a desire for connection.  Most teenagers are either searching for someone to understand them or hanging on to those people who do.

True understanding comes from empathy, from a real attempt to imagine yourself in someone else’s place and make a connection with their lived experiences and feelings.  I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t appreciate empathy.  And teenagers are not simply grown-ups in waiting.  They are already real, whole people, complete with dreams and aspirations, needs and desires, beliefs and fears.  Our interactions with them should respect that wholeness.

Nothing’s trivial.

There is little more infuriating and disheartening when you share something important, something about which you are passionate and emotional, than a patronising response.  Too often adults dismiss young people’s points of view as being uninformed, immature, or bound to change.  Too often we trivialise the issues they are facing, the things they are anxious about, the emotional ups and downs, and their relationships by viewing them as phases, fads, as driven by hormones.  Too often we say we understand but we’re really just giving them a metaphorical pat on the head to pacify them before they hit the ‘real world’ and its ‘real issues’.

Like the three-year old whose earnest attempts to master new vocabulary are greeted with laughter or cries of ‘You’re just so cute’, a teenager does not need your condescension or platitudes.

Most teens would rather straight-out, honest disagreement as long as it’s coupled with an openness to hearing their point of view.  At least a dissenting argument invites discussion and a chance for real communication and, as a result, better understanding.  More, it implies a degree of respect—in disagreeing, you are showing you care enough to make an effort to change their mind or actions.

And please, don’t be the adult who could fill a seat in Monty Python’s Yorkshireman sketch.  I don’t care if you did live in a rolled up newspaper with your family of 17, downplaying a young person’s issues and experiences because ‘they don’t know they’re born’, ‘it wasn’t like this in our day’, or ‘other people have things much worse’ is not only disrespectful and decidedly unhelpful, it’s also a bit dense.

Things can undoubtedly be worse, there will always be someone who is suffering more, but our shit is still our shit.  Squashing down our feelings and telling ourselves our thoughts and problems aren’t valid does more harm than good; seating guilt at the top of the emotional heap simply adds to the hardship.

Of course, if you’re wanting to avoid further conversations with your teen, please continue your story about the cold tea you drank out of a cracked cup.

No-one likes an ‘In my Day’ story.  No-one.

Listen, listen, and then listen some more.

One of the great pleasures in life is engaging in conversation with a skilled listener.  Even better, the follow-up chat where they mention some little detail, proving they were not only listening, but have remembered what you said.

There’s a line in Fight Club about the joy of meeting people who ‘really, really listen to you…instead of waiting for their turn to speak.’  For teenagers, growing up in a world where other people’s likes, comments, and shares are valued more than whatever it was they posted in the first place, having someone who is more focussed on what they’re listening to than on their own response is a precious gift.

Look, I know they sometimes talk drivel.  Don’t we all?  It’s not really necessary to take note of everything coming out of their mouth when they’re behaving like the talking version of the energiser bunny.  But do pay them the courtesy of listening, just as you would anyone else, and be on alert for important snippets they might slip in as openings for deeper conversations.  They’re not stupid; they know how to segue from the mundane to the critical once they’ve tested the waters.

Regardless of the topic, quell the urge to jump in with your reckons, helpful advice, ‘at leasts’ or judgements.  It’s good to ask questions for clarification purposes but other than those and a few indicators you’re keeping up, wait until they’re finished.  Pause for half a minute before you speak; if they fill the silence, keep listening. Repeat.

Unless they ask, don’t bestow advice upon them like you’re some sort of expert and they the inexperienced apprentice—even if you do happen to be an expert, resist.  It’s empowering and more likely to have an impact if adolescents are able, with support, to come to their own conclusions and make independent decisions.

Just be there.

Even if they’ve turned down your offers of conversation since the moment they turned 12, the fact you keep offering means something.  Having a constant, supportive adult can make all the difference to a teen’s well being and resilience.

It’s a bit like having a block of chocolate hidden in the back of the pantry – you don’t have to eat it, but knowing it’s there makes you better able to face the world.  Just as there’ll likely come a day when you’re glad you’ve got chocolate on hand and ready to go, the day will come when being able to come to you and talk is exactly what gets your teenager through.

It may be a challenge to be consistently open and available for the adolescents in your life.  To keep you going, I’ll end with the words of yet another wise young person who wrote, when asked what she wished her parents understood, ‘I want them to know that I love them even though I might not show it all the time.’

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor, currently filling her days looking after her own three children, writing a bit, singing a bit, and reading as much as she can.

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