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Getting Past the Grunt: Tips on Having a “Real” Conversation with Your Teen

This may be your version of conversations with your teen:

“How was your day?”     Fine

“What did you do?”       Nothing

“Do you have homework?”      Yes

“How did you do on your quiz?    Fine

“What are doing today/tonight?”     Don’t know

“Is Everything OK?”            It’s fine!!!!!!!!

These are such unsatisfying interactions for parents. What you are craving for, dying for, down on your knees begging for,  is some small nugget, some essence of what your teen’s life is really like. Asking yes/no questions won’t get you there. I guarantee it! You have a checklist and you systematically go through it question by question with your teen, hoping and praying you’ll find out something about his day, and his life. But unfortunately, you get NADA! But does that deter you to stop the interrogation? No! You just keep asking more and more questions. Why is that? Because parents are desperate for information. You have become complete information junkies about your kids.

Starting in preschool, your kids’ teachers sent home cute little notes in the lunchbox, describing the quality and quantity of their poops, the lunch remains so you could keep tabs on the day’s calorie count, how many minutes the nap lasted and the progress of their social networking (i.e. who they played with and the frequency of hitting and biting.) Then in elementary school, your kids fed your addiction by providing you with every tiny morsel of information about every minute of their lives, to the point where you had information overdose and wished they would just shut up! Now that your kids are teens, your position has changed. You have lost some of your executive privileges, such as information and access on demand. They no longer want to tell you everything, and they resent your constant badgering.

Here are some conversation openers. But timing is everything. If your teen has just woken up, just walked in the door or gotten into the car with you, beware! Teens need time to make transitions between sleep time and wake time, friends and home or school and home. Remember when they were babies, and they had just woken from a nap and were cranky, or you took them to a family party, and they clung to your legs until they got acclimated…well it’s kinda the same thing now. Give them some time to acclimate to the change in scenery before you try to engage them in conversation. And when you do…..

  • Don’t ask a yes/no question unless that is the kind of answer you are looking for.
  • Using starters like How was…. are too easy to be answered with a one word grunt. (see above)
  • Try starting with a “tell me about..” but with something more specific than general. For example: “So tell me, what was the hardest part of your quiz today? I know I used to hate those fill in the blank questions….. VS “how was your quiz?” Give them an example of the kind of information you are looking for. Honestly, many teens have a hard time distilling all the input from their day and putting it into words. That’s usually why they give you the one-word answers like “fine”
  • Start with a statement rather than a question. For example: God, you are taking so many different classes this year, so much work, which homework is easiest to get started with? VS How much homework do you have?
  • Use humor, and friendly sarcasm. When you are too serious, your teen senses your neediness for answers and will do anything and everything to fend you off?
  • Instead of a face-to-face questioning session, go out for ice cream, bring up a snack to their room, watch a TV show, play a video game with them. In a nonchalant way, at the commercial, or while you’re driving or during the game say:  “So, What’s up? You seem a little down today, or angry or overwhelmed.” Telling them what you see, rather than asking directly what’s wrong, can open things up.

As you know from watching two many bad interviews on television getting someone to open up is an art form. Just ask Oprah or Barbara Walters!

Joani Geltman MSW is a parenting expert and author of: A Survival Guide To Parenting Teens, Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs, and Other Things That Freak You Out.

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