How to get them to talk – to YOU!

teen-talk“Keeping the lines of communication open is a critical part of good parenting.”

Duhhhh! Already knew that. Who on the planet doesn’t? It’s obvious, right? And there’s probably not a mom or dad out there who wouldn’t comply, if they only knew how.

Instead of simply doling out lofty platitudes like that, with no explanations attached, it would be ever so much better if the “experts” would walk us through exactly HOW to accomplish so noble a feat, because once the pre-teen freeze-out begins, it can be pretty tough to break the ice.

So for all of you out there who might be wondering how to keep those kids talking, here are some tried and true tricks to start thinking about now, while they are still small and more than happy to talk your ears off.

  • Play lots of board games and cards with them when they are little (CandyLand, Sorry, Go Fish, Old Maid, etc.) to get them used to the idea of hanging out and talking. Later, when they are not so inclined to want to spend time with the ‘rents, the groundwork for a comfortable way to connect has already been laid and they will be more likely to want to wade in. 

I’m talking old-school, non-electronic stuff here. Why? Because the pace is slower, you can stop at any time to chew the fat about this-and-that and there is way less visual and auditory stimulation to distract them. Once they hit the teen years, they will love to play endless games of Monopoly, Risk, or Scrabble with the family IF it is already something you guys do together. 

Lots of random stuff comes up during these games and it creates a great, playful climate for you to share. Knowing there will be no lectures or questions about why they didn’t do better on their latest history test will help them loosen up and kid around with you which will ultimately strengthen your relationship. Plus, it will give you the chance to create new, positive memories together. If you make some hot chocolate and popcorn to go with it all, you will really up your odds for success.

  • As kids begin to age into the double digits, their attention starts to shift to people outside of their own house. Normal.

 If you pay close attention to when this natural transition time starts, you can take advantage of it. How? Start asking lots of light, non-threatening questions about their friends and their friend’s families so you can keep track of who and what matters to them.

And get to know their buddies. By establishing real relationships with their friends early on, you’ll have another way into your mute-by-choice kid later through them. The friends are likely to become big fans of yours if you treat them well and later on will want to hang out in the kitchen with you and chat, especially if you have something hot and delicious for them to eat.

Your kid will have to hang out there, too, and you can milk the friend for the scoops on what’s happening at school and with other kids if you keep it light and lively. Once the info is out, it’s fair game to bring up later for further discussion, after the friend goes home. Just make sure you honor their willingness to speak openly by never holding anything that’s said during those conversations against them.

  • Say a strong and powerful no to having T.V.’s, ipad’s or phones on in the car. Make your auto an unplugged, techno-free zone.

Why? Because it’s the one place where you can create and control privacy and space for things to bubble up naturally, especially when it’s just the two of you. It’s often there in the car where normally shut-off teens will let down their guard and spill their guts, so you want to be ready. 

One of the reasons kids are more likely to talk about feelings and problems in the car is that they don’t have to make eye contact. They know you have to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. And since they can look out their window away from you when they discuss touchy subjects or answer difficult questions, it’s less threatening. If you have snacks available for munching, you’re likely to do even better since teens love to eat.

  • This “having something else to do while you’re talking” works outside the car, too. Don’t insist on always making them “Sit down and look at me, damn it!” if you want them to talk. Teens often need a certain level of distraction, or something to do with their hands like playing around with a YoYo or throwing a ball into the air in order to feel comfortable. They aren’t necessarily being disrespectful, just making themselves feel less exposed and reducing the intensity of the face-to-face talk.
  • Know that teens are also more likely to want to talk late at night when it’s time for bed. When they are tired and worn down by the day, they often become more vulnerable and willing to let you in. So make sure you don’t hit the hay before they do, if at all possible. I know how exhausted moms are by days end but late at night seems to be the magic witching hour when the chance to really connect appears.
  • Learn as much as you can about their hobbies or interests. If they are all about sports, as one of mine is, take the time to find out what’s going on with their team.

Shock them occasionally by asking questions like, “Can you believe the fill-in-the-blank’s traded fill-in-the-blank to the fill-in-the-blanks? What idiots! They should have let fill-in-the-blank go instead!” Your kid will look at you with new eyes and may let loose with all sorts of info on the team and what he thinks about it all. Nod your head knowingly as he speaks and compliment him on his brilliant analysis of whatever it is he is talking about even if it’s all Greek to you. If you can at least fake it for a few minutes, you’ve created another opening through which to connect.

  • Find a television show or two that you can watch together. I watched the first couple seasons of American Idol with my youngest and that gave us tons to talk about for years. Another show that provided us with a fantastic platform for discussion about all sorts of teen-related issues was Friday Night Lights. My latest favorite is Leader of the Pack with Cesar Millan (I’m obsessed with that man) which I discovered when I was sick for a week with a bad virus. A show like that is fantastic to watch together, especially if you have a dog because it’s educational and entertaining.
  •  Establish an annual camping trip or activity-based family vacation that they are expected to go on every year. Once away from their ‘hood and their buds they are often willing to be with you in a way they wouldn’t/couldn’t be if they were home. Nature-based is especially great because the lack of gadgets forces you to find new things to do together. This is GOOD!
  • Search out funny, silly youtubes and make it a habit to share them with your teen. This single act can easily create a half hour or more of laughing and talking together as they show you their latest favorites, too. This back-and-forth youtube sharing will give you a serious peek into the kinds of things they are paying attention to and provide you with lots of fodder for future conversations.
  • Try hard not to hold grudges or bring up dirty laundry from the past. Once it’s over, however awful it was, let it be over even if it still makes you mad. They desperately want you to think well of them and if you will be big enough to let bygones be bygones, they will love you all the more for it. And they will feel freer to do better and make positive changes because for a very long time, they will see themselves through your eyes.
  • Remember that it’s not so much what you talk about as it is that you talk. Once you’ve got that down, the rest will come a lot easier.
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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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