By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Every parent of teens knows how difficult it can be to communicate with them. Oftentimes, it seems as though they live in their own bubble reserved for only their friends. It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s much parents can do to establish open communication with their teens. Here’s what the experts suggest:
Develop A Relationship Built on Trust
The first precondition for open communication with your teens is to develop a relationship built on trust. “Teens want to be taken seriously, especially by their parents,” says Rachel Ehmke of the Child Mind Institute, so “look for ways to show that you trust your teen.” For example, if you give them a nightly curfew, trust that they’ll return home by the agreed-upon time. Don’t text them constantly to find out where they are and to estimate whether they’ll be able to get home from there on time.
Trust Their Judgment and Take Their Advice
You can also develop a relationship built on trust, says professional counselor Trudi Griffin, by inviting your teens to talk to you about important issues, and this includes asking them for advice. “Teens really like to demonstrate their knowledge and skills,” Ms. Griffin says, “so use that as a way to improve the bond between you.” Joanna Teigen of Growing Home Together, agrees: “receiving input and help from our kids says ‘You’re smart. Your perspective is important. You talk, I’ll listen.’” For example, instead of telling your teens what they should do to avoid contracting Covid, ask them to share with you what they’ve learned in school and online about the virus, and how best to protect themselves.
Do Fun Stuff Together And Talk About Everyday Things
Do fun stuff together and talk about everyday things without constantly bringing up sensitive topics that are unrelated to what you’re doing. “It’s important for kids to know that they can be in proximity to you, and share positive experiences, without having to worry that you’ll pop intrusive questions or call them on the carpet for something,” says Ms. Ehmke. Joe White, the author of Sticking With Your Teen, puts it succinctly, “not every conversation has to be about feeling and relationships.” For example, if you’re taking your teens for a hike, talk about the landscape and how nice it is to do something fun together outside, instead of asking questions intrusive about their latest crush and how they feel about it.
By doing fun activities together and talking about everyday life, you’re developing a strong bond that’ll make it easier for your teens to broach more serious topics when the time is right.
As Ms. Ehmke says, “kids who feel comfortable talking to parents about everyday things are likely to be more open when harder things come up.” Or, as clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy Darling puts it: “You’re building trust and showing you’re a safe and reliable ally.”
Be Physically and Emotionally Available
Give your teen a sense that you’re ready to talk whenever they are by having what Ms. Griffin calls “an open door policy about communication.” This means being both physically and emotionally available to them. When your teens are in a room with you, says clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg, turn of your computer and give them your full attention. “Teens are extremely sensitive to rejection and to what they perceive as a lack of interest and unavailability,” she says, “even though they may often act uninterested.”
Carve Out Some Alone-Time With Your Teens
Be proactive. Clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham, author of Positive Parenting and many other parenting books, suggests that parents take time to connect with each of their kids every single day, even for just a short period of time. For teens in particular she recommends small rituals like sitting together every evening briefly to catch up. “Don’t expect your son or daughter to invite closeness or volunteer vulnerable emotions at each interaction,” Dr. Markham says. “But if you set up enough regular opportunities to be together, it’ll happen.” As Dr. Markham puts it, “kids often wait for these routine times with their parents to bring up something that’s bothering them.”
Give Advance Warning
If there’s a need for a serious conversation with your teens, give them some advance warning instead springing the topic on them during one of your regular conversations.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Gregory Jantz suggests that parents warn them ahead of time about the timing and topic they’d like to discuss as this’ll allow their teens “to pre-process the impending conversation and gather any thoughts.” Ms. Griffin agrees that an impromptu discussion makes it less likely that your teen will be ready to give you their full attention. “If they know that you’re interested in talking ahead of time,” she says, “they may be more receptive to listening.”
Eliminate any distractions. “Getting your teen to listen is much easier,” Ms. Griffin says, “when you aren’t competing with their cell phone or the television.” So, when you’re planning to talk, turn off the TV and ask them to silence their phone. Of course, you should do the same.
About the Author:
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.