The universe is full of mysteries—from the origins of its very existence to whether or not there is a God, or a force greater than ourselves masterminding the whole thing. But of all the phenomena we still don’t fully understand, is there really anything more enigmatic than the human teenager? What begins as a delightful, innocent and loquacious toddler who wants nothing more than to be in your presence—somehow morphs into a quiet, brooding bastion of contradictory emotions who wants nothing more than to be left alone.
Teen angel? Um, not so much.
Now, to be fair, most of this is completely normal and developmentally appropriate. Your child is navigating the important process of identity discovery while forging a new level of independence. So if they would rather open up to friends than to you, the diagnosis is likely going to be: Textbook Teenager.
But if you want a fighting shot at having your teenager talk to you—about anything—here’s a tip that will initially sound simple and obvious, but actually requires patience and skill:
Listen, don’t lecture.
At this point you may be thinking: “I already do that! My kid knows he can talk to me about anything.” In fact, I’m certain you’ve said these very words: “You know you can talk to me about anything.”
But how you initially respond to him will essentially dictate whether or not he’ll be willing to risk opening up to you in the future. Let’s take the example of sex. Imagine your 17-year-old daughter approaches and tells you she lost her virginity last night. What do you suppose would be the first thing you’d say?
For many parents, the initial response might be to express a concern about safety: “Did you use protection?” Put yourself in the mind of your child and hear what that sounds like; it sounds like you’re lecturing them. They’ve just shared something vulnerable and significant, and your first question is about contraception. An even worse first response would be to render a judgment about being too young to have sex.
Now you may be thinking: “But I don’t want to encourage my kid to keep doing this, or let them think I’m okay with it.” I understand, and there’s time to make your feelings known. But remember, the goal is to get them to talk to you, and a large part of it is how you first respond.
So what do you say, then? You can start by letting them know how glad you are they felt safe to open up to you. In fact, I recommend that this always be the very first response for any difficult subject they throw your way. And its self-perpetuating: your teen feels safe to open up to you because you make it safe to open up. It’s that simple.
Next, consider asking them what the experience was like for them—and then listen. That’s what their friends would do. They’d want to know how it was. What did they feel? Was it like they’d imagined it would be? Do they want to do it again?
Once you’ve allotted time for your child to tell you their story, you can ask if there’s anything they want to know, any questions they might have that you can help answer, or simply anything you can do for them.
Now you can feel free to share your perspective. You can talk about concerns you might have about the emotional maturity required to be sexually active. You can talk about the importance of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. What you’ll find is that teenagers are more amenable to hearing these kinds of thoughts if you’ve framed them within the context of a loving and supportive atmosphere.
The same goes for drugs and alcohol. There’s a high degree of likelihood that if your teenager hasn’t already experimented, they’re thinking about experimenting. If you want them to talk to you about it, first listen, don’t lecture.
Find out what they’re curious about; or if they’ve already tried something, ask them what it was like, what they got out of it, and what are their thoughts about doing it in the future. Again—there will and should be time to express your concerns, your rules, and your consequences. Invite them into the conversation about what should happen next—you still have the ultimate authority as their parent, but respecting their thoughts and feelings as a member of the family will go a long way towards future transparency.
Let’s not fool ourselves: there are some subjects or experiences that teens will simply not feel comfortable talking about. But as parents, at least make sure you’re not getting in your own way with initial reactivity, making it even less likely your teen will open up to you.
To be clear, you’re not required—nor is it recommended for you to be their friend. You are the parent: just be one who listens instead of lectures.