Communication sets the tone of a relationship. Spouses, friends, acquaintances, bosses, colleagues, parents, children… all our relationships are built on communication. When we increase and improve our communication with our teenagers, we win on many different levels. We learn more about the thought process of our children, our relationship gets better, and we have much more opportunity to guide and inspire them!
Look through some of the following ideas, and pick one or two that you can work on today!
Your child is changing. The teenage years massively rewire and upgrade the brain, body and emotions (for more on this, check out What Happened to My Kid). You may have known your children better than they knew themselves, but puberty changes the way they think, the way they feel, and the way they interact.
Don’t depend on your wisdom as their parent to guide your understanding of them. Pay attention. Who are their friends? What old things are they giving up? What new things are they trying? What are they reading? What are they watching? How are they feeling? What makes them excited? What makes them sad?
Do not become clinical about this as if your children are lab rats, but become the expert on them. Be their biggest fan. Be curious in a way that invites them to share with you.
It’s a tough balance, but imagine your son or daughter is an acquaintance that you would like to get to know. You don’t want to be pushy with an acquaintance, you want to be interested. You don’t want to sound like you have them all figured out, you want to be curious. When they buy coffee, you take a mental note of what they like so you can offer to buy it for them next time.
Make friendly observations that help you understand so you can communicate more knowledgeably and interestingly.
2) Enter their world
As you observe your teenagers, you will begin to understand where they feel most comfortable. You will notice who they hang out with, what they do together, when they do those things, etc. You will begin to enter their world.
Figure out how to become part of that world. You don’t want to take over their world (or be obnoxious). But you need to enter their world to understand your teenagers.
One way to do this is to say something like, “I saw you hanging out with Terry and Julie and some other people when I picked you up from school the last few days, would you like to invite them over for some pizza and a movie Friday?”
Other ways to do this are to drive them and their friends to events, and go to their sports events and musical presentations.
The idea is to be involved and understand their world both at home and outside of the home. Again, it’s just like what you would do in a relationship with someone you wanted to know better.
3) Ask open-ended questions
Questions that invite a “yes” or “no” response are not open-ended questions. These kind of questions cut off conversation. Open-ended questions invite conversation. For example, “Do you like salad for lunch?” is a closed-ended question. A simple “yes” or “no” is sufficient. However, “What do you like to eat for lunch?” is an open-ended question because there are numerous possibilities.
Most closed-ended questions can be turned into open-ended questions if you take a moment to think about it before asking. “Do you want to invite Ken over for dinner?” could turn into, “who would you like to invite over for dinner?” or “when would you like to invite Ken over?”
The best open-ended questions for inviting conversation begin with “what” and “how.” Questions that begin with “why” are open-ended, but they often communicate subtle judgement. Consider the often used question, “why would you do that?” We know, as parents (and our teenagers really feel it), that there is no right answer to this question. It’s a judgment.
Practice asking “what” and “how” questions in all your conversations. Dredge up your childish curiosity. Figure out what questions invite conversation and which ones shut your teenager down. If you and your teenager are not used to communicating well, don’t worry if it takes a while. Keep practicing!
4) Ask interesting questions
Open-ended questions are the first step toward interesting questions. However, with a little thought, boring questions can become interesting questions.
The classic, “how was your day?” is an open-ended question, but we all know it rarely invites conversation. We know the answer is “ok” before we even ask it, especially from teenage boys.
A more interesting question could be, “what was the best part of your day?” or “what would have made your day perfect today?” An even more interesting question could be, “if you could have muted one of your teachers today, which one would you mute and why?”
Think from the perspective of your child. Teenagers tend to think in extremes. What kind of question would they like to answer? What would be interesting to them? If they like video games and science-fiction movies, an interesting question might be, “if you could teleport one of your classes to another galaxy, which one would it be?” If they like shopping and finding great deals, an interesting question might be, “if you could snap you fingers right now and have a store appear right in front of you, what store would that be?”
5) Plan out relevant questions
Interesting, open-ended questions do not just flow off your tongue unless you’ve had lots of practice. Even then, good questions that invite conversation from your teenager take a bit of forethought.
As you observe (idea 1 above) your teenager, you will begin to build up some ammunition for good questions. Good questions are focused on the person. They take into account the person’s personality, their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, etc.
You are the expert on your child. Knowing all you do about this unique person, adding in the observations you are making as they change, combined with curiosity invites the makings of great questions.
Another source for great questions is current events, especially controversial stories. Pay attention to articles, headlines and stories that your teens would hear about and then ask them what they think about it. You will most likely have an opinion, but keep it to yourself. Find out what your son or daughter thinks.
Take time to make interesting questions. Do not use them to make a point, but to invite conversation. As your children feel respected and validated (and not lectured at) for the unique and thoughtful people they are, they will begin to be more interested in what you think.
6) Ask for their opinion
As the minds of adolescents change and expand, they form all kinds of interesting thoughts and opinions that they want and need to try out and test. You will notice this as you observe and study your teenager.
Your job as a parent is to walk with your child through childhood and adolescence providing boundaries, leading to truth, and encouraging healthy thoughts and attitudes. The best place for them to try out their newly developing thought processes, ideas and opinions is with you.
Ask for their opinion on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes they may have a hard time verbalizing what they think. They may just say “I don’t know.” That’s okay. You don’t always want to push them. If they resort to that answer all the time, it may be a clue that you have to think of some more interesting questions. Once in a while, you could ask, “what do you think your friend Tristan would say about that?”
7) Shut up and listen, really listen
Most of us find ourselves lecturing our children more than we would like if we thought about it. From our perspective, they make some really messed up choices. It’s painful to watch them embarrass themselves (or us or someone else) by the way they talk or act.
If you think about your own life, you probably weren’t convinced to change something about yourself from someone who lectured you after you had done something wrong or embarrassing. Let’s face it, lecturing is a poor way to help our children mature.
We definitely want to teach truth and guide our children to greater maturity. A better way is to invite conversation, provide a safe place to share, and pick our battles.
As you learn and practice asking open-ended, interesting questions, keep your mouth shut and keep your ears wide open. You may be surprised to learn that your teenagers are as confused as you are by their own behavior!
When you do speak, try to keep your comments brief. Use your airtime to ask questions, clarify that you are hearing correctly, or to briefly answer a question posed to you. As you gain the trust and respect of your teens through being interested in them, your opinion will become more interesting to them as well.
8) Utilize driving time
Parents often feel like unappreciated taxi drivers. Children don’t understand the value of a tank of gas or our time. But, we love them and want to give them a wide variety of opportunities, so we do end up driving quite a bit.
One great thing about driving is that it’s an enclosed area for a specific amount of time – the perfect place for conversation! Especially for guys because it’s often harder for them to have face to face conversations, males tend to talk more around doing something together.
Take advantage of this opportunity! If your teenager is plugged in, ask what they are listening to. Take a deep breath, prepare yourself, stick in some earplugs if you have to, and tell them you want to listen too. Then play it over the car stereo. If they don’t want to share it with you, then you know you have some research to do in order to figure out how to provide better boundaries around their music choices. If they do share it, then you can listen and come up with some great questions!
Often you will be driving more than just your own children. Open your ears and listen! You will learn a lot, and find great opportunities for interesting questions.
Driving may not be the only time you have to listen and communicate with your child in the normal routines of life. Look for other opportunities like making a meal together, cleaning up after meals together, having a snack after school, etc.
9) Schedule regular times to connect
Relationships take work. When people want to stay connected, they need to connect randomly (as in idea 8 above) but also regularly.
This may take a little time and effort to get started, but you need to carve out regular times for one-on-one interaction with your children. Teenagers love to eat, so a Tuesday morning breakfast or late Friday night snack may fit the bill.
Whatever you do, make it about your teenager and what they like. This is a time for you to enter their world as much as possible.
Be prepared. You may sit there with little or no conversation not just the first time, but the second, third and several more before you have an interesting conversation. Then it may be many more times before another great conversation comes up again. But, without the regular, consistent times that your teenager can count on, you won’t have those wonderful moments of great connection with your teen.
10) Communicate respectfully
The way we communicate will pass on to our teenagers. They may not even be aware that they are observing, but they are. And they will do what they see us doing.
Pay attention to how you communicate to, with and about other people. If you speak condescendingly or gossip about people, work on being more respectful and positive. Think about how you want your teenager to communicate and be the model.
Even more importantly, watch how you interact with your teenagers. Would you communicate with someone you respect the way you communicate with them? Often, this is very difficult because we think, “I’m the parent. My kids should respect my authority.”
However, forcing our authority on our children will not help them learn respect and listen to our opinions. We need to model respect and earn it as our children move into adulthood.
You may be starting to notice that communication with your teenager takes a little work. However, since you are reading this, chances are you are wanting to find more and better ways of communicating with your teen and are willing to make the effort. Knowing something takes a lot of work is one thing, knowing how to do the work is another. I hope this has given you some more tools to go out and connect with your teen!
Pick one or two ideas that jump out at you (or inspire your own!) and try them out for a week! Then, send me a note. I’d love to hear what works!