Shut up and listen (and 6 other ways to get your teen to talk to you)

Listen to your teen.Our twin daughters turned 13 this past Sunday, launching us full tilt into the world of teen parenting. And as I watch my not-so-little girls make their way down the path to adulthood, I’ve noticed a change in the ways they communicate with us.

Gone is the constant singing and non-stop chatter about everything and anything. We no longer get a running narration of their lives or spontaneous breakdowns of the minutiae of their experiences at school or camp (“and then she said that was silly and he said that was funny and then we ate crackers and we read that book with the tree and the dog in it and then we played tag, but he tagged me too hard and I fell over and then…”).

Drawing them out about some of the stuff that interests me as a parent — their friends, their inner world, their fears and hopes — has become increasingly difficult to do.

It’s normal, I know. And it’s even healthy. Distinguishing themselves from their parents and building their own identities is part of the serious work of adolescence.

But it’s so hard. Because just as they begin this retreat, the issues they may face get more serious. While I loved hearing about their little kid thoughts, I need to know about their teenage concerns. I want them to be able to keep talking to me, to keep those all important lines of dialogue open.

Turns out that getting your teens to talk to you isn’t impossible, it just requires some finesse and a different approach than you might have used in their elementary school years.

Shut your mouth and listen. When your teen starts talking, resist any temptation to teach, lecture, criticize or even solve their problems. Unless they directly ask for advice, what they want most of all is your genuine interest and loving acceptance.

Ask them about their music. Even if it sounds like someone torturing the cat. Even if you need to load up on Advil before you let them press play. Remember what you loved as a teen and how it made you feel understood? (Was it Duran Duran? Air Supply? Bon Jovi? English Beat? the Beastie Boys?) Music speaks to teens on precisely the emotional level we are so desperate to access as parents. Ask your son or daughter to play their favourite song or share their favourite lyrics. Be very careful not to show the slightest bit of contempt or criticism or you will lose all credibility.

Avoid direct questions. Your tween or teen will automatically shut down in the face of direct questioning. Even something as innocent as “How was your day?” may be met with suspicion or dismissal. Find something to compliment them on. Make a (positive) statement about a movie you think they’d like, a neighbour they know, about school or camp or a sale at their favourite clothing store. Ask them about a skateboarding term, or a sports team, or the complicated premise behind The Bachelorette.

Avoid eye contact. Teens (especially boys) can feel challenged when parents or authority figures make direct eye contact, and they may be difficult to draw out. Some of my best conversations with my mom when I was in high school occurred when we cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. Driving anywhere in the car is also great for conversations, or tackling difficult issues.

Keep it casual. Your kids dread the idea of a big formal “talk” about a serious topic (drugs, sex, alcohol, Facebook, etc.) as much as you do. And they automatically shut down when they hear a lecture coming. Effective communication about these issues will happen in small increments over many years. Instead of a series of serious sit-downs, try to communicate your values, attitudes and rules in more casual conversations over time.

Lie next to them at bedtime. The fabulous Scott Fried, author of My Invisible Kingdom: Letters from the Secret Lives of Teens, talks about how we all give up our secrets in the dark (which also explains the intimacy draw of teen sex). Once upon a time you lay next to your child at bedtime and read them stories. When did that stop? Your 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter are not too big for you to lay down next to them once in a while. Enjoy their closeness for a few minutes. Don’t say anything. Let the silence draw them out. You won’t be sorry.

Remember that “talk” comes in many forms. I recently watched one of our older daughters and my husband (a man of few words) sit together on our dock at the lake and play with a remote control boat. The conversation went like this:

Daughter: Wow, it’s so fast!
Dad: Yup. Pretty cool. See if you can send it all the way to the rocks.
[occasional laughter and hoots of pleasure]
Dad: Was camp alright?
Daughter: Yeah, it was good.
[Daughter rests her head on Dad’s shoulder.]

That’s it. Totally awesome. I realized I could learn something from that, given my usual tendency to constant commentary. Shared quiet company. Similar to watching a hockey game together or watching the same crappy TV show. Sometimes simple pleasant togetherness speaks volumes.

It turns out you don’t always have to be talking to communicate. And listening is actually more important (and harder) than talking. Take advantage of the slower pace of summer to try these out, and let me know how it goes.

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