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How to listen better so your teen will talk to you

What should I do when my teen doesn't talk to me? This can be a question we frequently ask ourselves as parents of teens.

And no, the answer is not as a facetiously told my partner, that we should just feed them some pot brownies to get them to relax.

No matter how much we try to keep an open dialogue going with our kids, there are times when they will shut us out. This may become increasingly common as they grow into teenagers, and start to become more focused on their friends than the family.

When Teens Don't Talk

As kids get older, their lives revolve more and more around school and friends, than things at home. They may not think it's "cool" to spend time talking to mom and dad.

However, if a teen suddenly clams up when they have been usually talkative, it may indicate that there are deeper problems going on. There may be issues at school that they don't want to talk about.

They may also be afraid of your reaction to something that has happened, or feel like you will judge them. Teens are always worried what people think of them, and parents are no exception.

Your teen may be facing bullying at school, or having a problem with a teacher, friend or possible love interest. They may have been approached to try drugs. Or they may be struggling academically.

All of these problems are fixable, but may seem insurmountable to a teen.

According to Ma's and Pa's, "You don’t need to drill your reluctant teen and force them to spill every last detail about what went on at the party they went to last night. However, you can chat to them about whether it was fun, who turned up, whether anyone danced and whether there were any dramas. Open questions like this will spark conversation. What your teenager chooses to tell you can also give you vital clues as to how they are feeling. You can then pick up on any worries or concerns they may have."

The way you open a dialogue matters.

Asking open-ended questions is a good way to get teens to open up. It lets them feel like you are interested in what they are saying, but not passing judgement.

Refrain from using an accusatory or adversarial tone as much as possible. This lets kids know that you are relaxed and happy to be talking to them. You want to have a conversation, not an interrogation.

One technique that I have used with some success is called Transformational Listening. It focuses on listening with an open heart, and putting away your devices so that you can focus completely on the conversation. This lets your teen know that you value what they have to say.

A lot of times, when my teen daughter would come home from school, she would just want to vent about things. I would ask her if she wanted advice, or if she just wanted to tell me about what was going on.

The older kids get, the less they want you to fix their problems.

Especially once they get into high school or college, often they just want a listening ear. They want to be able to get things off their chest, so that they aren't holding all their feelings inside. If we listen without the intent of giving advice, it can be really helpful.

According to Teen Line Online, the top five reasons that teens don't talk to their parents are:

Reason #1 – They don’t want to overwhelm or worry you. Teens can be very intuitive, even when it seems like they aren’t paying attention, and know when you’re already at your limit. They don’t want to add anything else to your plate, so they keep things inside or act them out in harmful ways.

Reason #2 – They don’t want you to fix it. When your child was in elementary school, maybe it was okay for you to talk to their teacher or friend’s parent. Now that they’re in high school, no way! Not only do they think you can’t fix it, but they don’t want you fighting their battles.

Reason #3 – They don’t want you to get mad. Teens know what kind of behavior you won’t tolerate, and they don’t want to be the ones to tell you they did something you won’t like or agree with.

Reason #4 – You won’t understand. That is the universal disconnect between parents and teens. You may even remember feeling that way about your parents.

When kids don't talk, usually it is because they are struggling, and don't know how to approach you. Since they don't know what to say, they don't say anything.

In these types of situations, you can let them know that when they are ready to talk, you are available to listen. You don't need to pressure them to talk right away, as this will only alienate them further.

Sometimes, they will go for days or weeks mulling over a situation before they are ready to talk. It is important not to take it personally. Just let them know that if they have problems at school, it is OK to come to you, and that you are willing to advocate for them, or just listen if that is what they want.

Practicing Non-Judgement

As teens grow, they are becoming individuals with their own thoughts, feelings and opinions about life. Their world is becoming wider, and their worldviews are changing as well.

When teens are espousing these new viewpoints, it is important that we don't come across as being judgmental. We may not agree with them, but we don't want to come across as hostile to their viewpoints.

Ask questions, learn about what they are interested in, and support their interests as much as possible. Showing that we take an interest in them helps them to know that we value them as people.

Non-Judgement is a Mindfulness principle that can be helpful in keeping your calm when dealing with a teen's opinions that differ from your own.

According to Mindful Ambition,

As Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.”

The last part of that definition, non-judgment, means letting go of the automatic judgments that arise in your mind with every experience you have.

Setting down the judging mind, even for a short while, is a refreshing weight off of your shoulders.

In practicing non-judgment, there’s no longer anything to be done about the present moment. No grasping for more, no resisting what’s there, and no ignoring of life’s experience.

If we feel resistance to what our teen is trying to tell us, they will sense that, and often it can cause them to shut down.

This may happen if we find that our teens are taking on religious, political or social values that are different from our own. We all hold our beliefs strongly, and having your teen take on a different viewpoint may be very difficult to handle.

For example, as a young teen, I started to become an environmentalist, and so I voted for the Green party in my first election. I had some family members who held different values and they screamed at me that I had no morals because I had voted for Ralph Nader instead of George W. Bush.

Yelling at me for my beliefs wasn't really the way to open up a dialogue or get me to change my mind. Yelling rarely works the way that we intend for it to do so. We can get our points across better by calmly stating a difference of opinion, explaining our reasons, and asking for theirs.

The biggest reasons that teens tend to shut down are because they don't feel seen or heard.

I think this is true for most of us.

When we withhold judgement, and take time to listen instead, it helps to preserve our relationships with our teens by creating a feeling of openness and trust. Teens are unlikely to trust us, or to open up, when they feel like they are being judged.

Teens want to be seen, heard and loved. They want to be able to freely express their opinions, without feeling like it will jeopardize their relationships with us.


If we create an environment of openness and non-judgement, this allows our kids to trust us as good listeners and open up more.

We can achieve this by listening with an open heart, asking open ended questions, and withholding judgement. By doing these things, it allows our kids to open up without fear of what we will say or do.

The main reason that kids will hold back is out of fear. When we allow them to communicate openly without fear of retribution, they are much more likely to keep talking with us, the way that they would talk with a friend.

Picture of mom and daughter with text that reads, "How to listen better so your teen will talk to you."
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