Parents, it isn’t uncommon to find that your once chatty child is starting to become more reserved or unforthcoming as the years go by. While one can recognize that this is not unusual for a teenager, these changes can still bring about a range of emotions in the child’s guardians.
Some get anxious & start to question their familial connection, while others wonder if new experiences, people, and/or environments in their teen’s life are causing this shift. Understandably, many guardians may begin to miss the conversations they once had with their kiddo, and, thankfully, there are ways to make engaging less challenging. Here are some tried and true strategies for engaging your teen:
1. ) Take a drive in the car together (or a walk!)
While this suggestion might not seem groundbreaking, many parents find that having the option to avoid eye-contact can make your teen feel more comfortable (& less anxious) engaging openly with you. Around this time of life, your teenager may have questions about bullying, changes they are seeing in their body, or questions about words/things they heard other kids saying at school. Later on, your teen may also want to ask you questions about sexuality, safe sex practices, or what to do when feeling peer-pressured to use substances. Questions related to death, divorce, things seen in the media, and tragedies in the family/community are common. While (thankfully) not every conversation with your teenager is going to include the aforementioned subject matter, you never know when they might want guidance but are wary of facing you.
Of course, their fear of engaging does not mean you aren’t terrific parents. It just means they are still learning to navigate big feelings and these new experiences. This is an expected stage of teen development and is completely healthy. Sometimes it’s just easier to share when the grown-up’s eyes are on the road.
2.) Try to avoid overusing broad questions
It is not uncommon for teenagers to find questions like, “How was your day?”, or, “What’s up with you?” to be overwhelming. Life is a whirlwind when you’re a teenager, and we live in a world where “correct answers” are rewarded from a young age. When broad questions are used, it can make finding the “right answer” feel impossible, and this can be frustrating for your anxious teenager. That is why pushing your teen to “get to the point” isn’t a good practice. As we age, we get better at limiting our word count or trimming down our stories more efficiently. However, for younger people, those extra, seemingly rambling sentences can be a key part of processing their experiences. That being said, if you want to know about something specific, ask your teenager directly.
As adults, we can help with these skills by modeling the asking of some questions that are more targeted and less open-ended. For example
Parents, instead of, “What’s up with you today?”, try asking about something specific:
“This morning at breakfast, you seemed anxious about that presentation you had to do today in World History. I was thinking about you all day! Presenting can be so anxiety-provoking– even for adults! I still get anxious presenting sometimes! I bet you did a great job, but how do you think it went?”
Or instead of, “How are you?”, try engaging by saying:
“What was the best part of your day today, and what was not-so-great?”
** Bonus tip! Avoid stacking questions. For example, it’s best to not ask: “How was your day today? Did you like your lunch? And did Mr. Smith ever update you about what you’re supposed to write about for that essay??” Those questions are better asked one at a time to avoid frustration and to encourage connection.
3.) Consider your timing
We’ve all been asked a question that wouldn’t normally make us roll our eyes, but it was asked at a bad time. The same mistake can be made by teenagers, and they are famous for their sassy responses. Starting a conversation with your teenager about why they should call grandma more might not land well after a long day at school or after hours of S.A.T. prep. Sometimes called, “a bid”, our attempts for connection or communication should be placed with care– just like a real bid! Find a time when your child isn’t exhausted, anxious, frustrated, or overstimulated to have that heart-to-heart. You know your teen best and will know when the time is right.
4.) Practice authenticity & genuine curiosity
My last tip might seem obvious, but my advice is for parents to be as authentic as possible when engaging with teenagers. Sometimes, we try too hard to find the things we have in common, and it can even feel impossible to just “keep it real” with someone who seems so different. Practice being genuinely curious about what they have to say, and this will allow you to learn about their experiences and interests. You don’t have to know everything about their generation to connect with them. When your teenager has the opportunity to teach you something, their confidence will skyrocket. If you don’t understand that new app they keep talking about– ask them about it without judgment! If they keep insisting that their new video game is actually really cool (& not a waste of time), take their bid and have them show you how they play.
Even taking just 5 minutes a day to show you care about their interests will work wonders. They will be more eager to engage with you, and it will show that you care about what they have to say. Parents, be kind. Be curious. Be forgiving. The space between childhood and adulthood can feel lonely & confusing at times. Connection is so important, and your teenager is so lucky to have you.
By: Erika Koch-Weser