Getting my Teenager to Talk

I sat down next to a mother recently at my son’s school sports match. We got onto the subject of teenagers and she told me how her 13-year old son had – quite recently – developed a new language that relied exclusively on communicating through a complex system of grunts. This experience was entirely new and bewildering to her, since she didn’t speak ‘grunt’ and her 17 year-old daughter hadn’t learnt it either.

Far from being on her own with this predicament, millions of parents face the same challenge, feeling like they are breaking their backs to provide for their teenagers, only to experience that the teenager lives in a sort of impenetrable force field.

While it’s vital for parents not to take it too personally when their teenager pulls up the drawbridge on communicating with us – a perfectly natural process for someone who is pushing for greater independence – there are things we can do to increase the chances that our teenagers will talk to us when they’re stressed, have difficulties with friendships or face a difficult choices. We’re not asking them to talk to us about everything, but we do want them to feel that they can talk to us about the things that really matter to them.

Of course there is no easy solution for staying close to our teenagers, and none of us has the answer. However, here are some things to bear in mind:

1. Start early. 

Get into the habit – when they are at a young enough age – of listening and talking to your children. For example, lets say that you have this ritual with your child:

  • You say, ‘How was your day?’
  • They say, ‘Fine’
  • The conversation ends

 If repeated most days, this kind of conversation isn’t terribly conducive to a child becoming a teenager who talks about what’s happening in her life.

Now here’s another example. This is no better, and perhaps even worse:

  • You say, ‘How was your day?’
  • She says, ‘Harry pushed Charlotte in the playground and got into trouble’
  • You say, ‘Harry’s got problems. I’ve always thought he was trouble. You should steer clear of him, and here’s another thing….’

In this situation, your child is likely to zone out when you start offering your solutions or moralize about how the world ought to be. She’ll make a mental note that it’s better not to bring the subject up in the first place. By the time she reaches her teenage years, she’ll say to herself, ‘A safer option is to speak grunt’.

2. Talk together as a family.

 Having a TV dinner is always an option, but mealtimes are an ideal opportunity to talk, and whoever invented the kitchen table must have had conversation in mind. In many European cultures, it is a daily ritual to spend the evening outside as a family, and there is no real purpose to this other than to talk. In contrast, mealtimes for many of us can be lightning quick; children and teenagers disappear the moment their plate is finished or even eat their meal in their bedroom.

 The alternative is to have a meal in which everyone gets into the habit of talking. There’s nothing formal about this

3. When they talk, make sure you listen.

 If your child does confide in you, he will be noting how you respond. If it goes badly and you don’t listen, he may not try next time. For this reason, we have to make sure that when our child crosses the threshold and bears their heart, our primary job is to listen without judging them. This is more important than any advice we may impart.

A 2013 Prince’s Trust survey found that 22 per cent of young people in the UK felt they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their problems while they were growing up. Most of them surely had friends and family around them, but they didn’t trust that they would be heard.

4. Get the timing and environment right.

We need to choose the right place and the right moment for a conversation. This is not to advocate treading on eggshells, but at least to ask ourselves:

  • What’s the appropriate place for the conversation? Is it here or somewhere else?
  • Is it best to have it now or later? And if not now, then when?

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