10 Ways to Get—and Keep—Conversations Going with Teens

By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain
Teen and mom having a conversation together

Sometimes it’s harder to communicate with teenagers than it would be to fry an egg on the sidewalk in Minnesota in January. No matter what you do, both the egg and the conversation turn as cold as ice, not sunny-side up.

It’s easy to take this personally, too. They seem to be able to talk (or at least text) incessantly with their friends. But instead of nice interludes that bring us all together, too many family encounters are drowned with juggling schedules, extinguishing fires, or nagging about dirty socks. Let’s take a pause and figure out what’s going on.

Change, not calamity

What’s going wrong? Why can’t we talk like we could just a couple of years ago? Most likely, nothing has gone wrong. Your teen is probably dealing with some of the normal changes and challenges of becoming an adolescent. As children become teenagers, they begin to think, act and relate in new ways that can be confusing to their families—not to mention, to themselves. 

But parents shouldn’t check out just because kids change. Just the opposite: During this key transition into adolescence, as parents, we have a unique opportunity to recalibrate our relationships with our kids. Doing so can keep our families connected as our kids grow from being young children to becoming young adults.

Relationship-rich conversations

For several years, Search Institute—a nonprofit research organization focused on positive youth development—has been examining the kinds of relationships young people need (and want) with friends, family and other important people in their lives. These “developmental relationships” are like roots that provide nourishment for growth and stability to buffer them against life’s challenges.

Developmental relationships consist of five elements that give them their power and make them practical to be intentional in nurturing. Those same five elements can refresh and deepen our conversations with our kids.

Express Care

This element focuses on how we show that we matter to each other. That includes showing warmth, really listening to each other, and being dependable. Here are ways to deepen conversations through expressing care:

  1. Focus on the conversation and your child. Multi-tasking doesn’t work if you want your child to feel seen, heard and valued. Turn off and put away cell phones, video games or the television—whatever might otherwise distract either of you.
  2. Be open about your own life. You want a two-way conversation, and they don’t want an inquisition. Be willing to reveal yourself without crossing boundaries that are inappropriate for a child to deal with.

Challenge Growth

This element emphasizes how we need each other to nudge and even push us to work toward our goals, encouraging us along the way. Here are some ways to challenge growth through our conversations:

  1. Talk about failures, missed opportunities and disappointments—not in a judgmental way, but in a caring and supportive way that deepens insight and learning. One way this works best is if you model openness about your own mistakes. (See tip #2.)
  2. Ask open-ended, non-threatening follow-up questions. “Can you tell me more about that?” “I didn’t understand how that works. Can you explain it more?” Probe deeper, even if neither of you knows more. (That’s actually the point, right?) 

Provide support

This element highlights ways we help each other navigate challenges, advocate for each other, and find other ways to empower each other to complete tasks and achieve goals. Here are ways to support each other through our conversations:

  1. Take their challenges and concerns seriously. No, a teen breakup isn’t the end of the world. But it feels devastating if it’s your first time. Listening empathetically and giving them time to think through all the issues they now face may be key to them coming to you for support for something bigger the next time.
  2. Avoid the question barrage. Sometimes when we’re excited or upset, we can pummel our kids with questions (particularly if they’re not saying much). This approach mostly just adds to the stress. Take a break and find a time when they’re ready to talk.

Share Power

This element addresses how we treat each other with respect and give each other a say as well as meaningful roles. We can share power in our conversations in many ways, including these:

  1. Share airtime. Keep your responses short. Don’t dominate. (Enough said.)
  2. Talk on their terms, time and turf, particularly if that helps them feel comfortable and open up. One of my sons loved to open up late in the evening, so I’m glad my wife is a night owl. My other son would open up while we did carpentry or cooking together.

Expand Possibilities

This final element includes the many ways we introduce and connect each other to other people, ideas and places that broaden and enrich our worlds. Here are ways to expand conversations beyond quick, superficial exchanges:

  1. Explore ideas or topics you’re both interested in but may not know much about. “What if . . .” questions can be fun ways to tap your imaginations and stretch how you think.
  2. Follow their dreams and interests. If you want to have a glimpse into who they are and who they are becoming, you can do no better than listening to them tell you about the things that fascinate them and draw them in. In the process, you’ll learn something, too!

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., is lead creator of Keep Connected, an online resource to strengthen family relationships from Search Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on positive youth development.

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