Getting Your Teen to Open Up
“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much.”
– John Wayne
This is great advice for parents when they talk to their teenagers! Teens have their heads full of opinions — from their parents, their teachers, their peers, the media. It seems like someone is telling them what to think, what to do, what to say, a l l d a y l o n g. Often teens deal with “opinion overload”. If you want your son or daughter to be open with you, silence may be golden!
Let your teenager talk about their thoughts and feelings without interrupting them with your opinion. It is important to hear them out. Look at it this way, when your teen comes to you to talk about something that seems important to them, envision them in a spotlight. As long as they are in the spotlight, they are willing to express themselves, openly and honestly.
Your job is to keep the spotlight on them so they will keep talking. You can keep the spotlight on them by staying focused on what he or she is saying. What are they trying to tell you? What is in their head or heart?
Often, when our teens talk to us about a problem or difficult situation, we respond with something we think will be helpful. We try to fix things by telling them that they shouldn’t feel that way or things will get better. We try to give them possible solutions or we try to tell them where they went wrong in the hope that such insight will comfort or enlighten them.
However, all of these responses are — your opinion. When you start talking about your opinion, you move the spotlight off your teen and put the spotlight on yourself. Now, the conversation is about you, not about them. They can sense this shift and it can cause them to get defensive or shut down. The way to keep the spotlight on your teen is to LISTEN using passive and reflective listening.
Passive listening is simply acknowledging that you are listening using verbal or non-verbal cues. Give your son or daughter your full attention, nodding or saying ”uh huh”, “go on”, or “yes”, for example. Do not drive the conversation, but rather let things unfold at your teen’s pace. If there is a little awkward silence, that’s fine. The stuff in their head is not silent. Give them time to formulate what they are thinking or feeling.
Reflective listening is when you verbally confirm that you are understanding what your teen is saying by using empathetic statements or clarifying questions. Empathetic statements like “That must have hurt” or “No wonder you were mad”, lets your teen know that you can understand what they have experienced. By making empathetic statements about what they have just said, you are not only keeping the spotlight on them but you also make that spotlight a little brighter which keeps your teen talking.
Clarifying questions allow you to test your insights to make sure you are understanding what your son or daughter is saying. You can even repeat what they say or restate it in your own words and follow it with the question “Is that what you mean?” That way, your teen can correct you if you are getting it wrong.
Here is an example: Let’s say that you are the parent of Tony.
Fifteen-year-old, Tony comes home from school. He seems agitated or in a bad mood.
Tony: “I hate Chemistry. It is such useless information and it doesn’t make sense. In fact, I don’t think I want to even go to college, anymore. It’s all just a big waste of time.”
Mom: “Wow, you sound frustrated about Chemistry.” followed by silence.
By saying this, you have told Tony that you have heard him and you are interested in what he has to say. Let Tony collect his thoughts. Keep the spotlight on him. Now is not the time to tell him that he doesn’t study his Chemistry enough or that he has immature ideas about college. Let him give you his version of the day’s event.
Tony: “Yeah, it’s a crummy class. The teacher sucks! I got a D on the test today.”
Don’t steal the spotlight from Tony with a condescending comment like “What do you mean, ‘you got a D?'” Don’t talk about his disrespect for his teacher or his bad language. There is plenty of time to react to those things, later. Right now, stay focused on keeping the spotlight on Tony. Continue to listen. You can respond with a reflective statement.
Mom: “Wow, Tony, that sounds rough. What grade did you think you were going to get?”
Tony: “Well, I didn’t think I’d get a D. The last part of the test was short answers and he didn’t like my answers.”
Mom: “Were you happy with your answers?”
Tony: “Well, yeah… mostly.”
Mom: “What do you think you did, that the teacher didn’t like your answers?”.
Tony: I gave my best answers but I left my book in my locker yesterday so the questions on chapter five were a little sketchy.
Mom: You didn’t get to read Chapter five. Is that what you mean?”
Tony: “I read it this morning before class but I kept getting interrupted and I didn’t have enough time.”
Mom: Wow, It’s too bad that you left your Chemistry book in your locker yesterday. Is there anything that you can do about the D now?
When you keep your teen focused in the spotlight, in this way, he or she will feel understood and respected. Your teen is less likely to get distracted by feeling like he or she has to defend himself or herself against an “unreasonable parent” or try to resist a controlling, “know-it-all” parent. It allows your teen to form her or his own opinions and to take responsibility for her or his experiences. Also, when your son or daughter feels understood and respected, they are more open to hearing your point of view and may even ask you for your opinion!
Delinda Samp © Copyright 2012