23 Ways to Get Your Teenager to Open Up to You, According to Experts
Talking to your teen doesn't have to feel like pulling teeth—even during quarantine.
Ask most parents and they'll tell you that getting a teenager to open up, more often than not, can feel like pulling teeth. Whether they avoid contact with you at all costs or shut down completely when you start asking questions, finding out even the smallest details about what's going on in you teen's life is rarely easy. And with school, extracurricular activities, and even in-person visits with friends out of the question for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus pandemic, countless teens are understandably stressed—with few outlets to appropriately channel those feelings. The good news? With the help of experts, we've rounded up the best ways to get your teenager to talk to you, from fun activities to try together to how you can phrase questions they'll actually respond to.
Open up about your own childhood.
While your own childhood may not feel like it occurred that long ago, your children likely feel otherwise. Give them some insight into your past and it might just help them reveal some new details about their present.
"Tell a story from your childhood—one that makes you vulnerable and shows that you're not perfect," says clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD. "This plants seeds of openness and vulnerability in your teen's mind." After that, Manly says that the ball is now in their court to share something in return.
Ask open-ended questions.
Instead of trying to guide the conversation with your teen, try keeping your questions open to their interpretation—and accept their answers as they come.
"Ask your teen a few open-ended questions such as, 'How is your best friend doing?', 'What's happening with those drawings I saw you working on last?' or 'I'm feeling stir-crazy. How about you?'" suggests Manly. And if you want to stay one step ahead of your kids, make sure you know these 30 Lies Every Teenager Tells Their Parents.
Have them participate in preparing family meals.
While they may not be able to go to their favorite restaurants—or even get all of the food they'd like at the local store—getting a say in what you purchase and prepare at home can give your teen a sense of agency in these uncertain times.
"Invite your teen to share in cooking, shopping, or dinner prep by saying, 'What are a few things you'd like to see on the dinner menu?'" suggests Manly. "When teens feel included and relevant, they often share naturally."
Don't scold them in the same way you would a younger child.
Though having your kids talk about certain subjects may make you feel uncomfortable, don't chastise them when they choose to open up about topics that are relevant to them.
"If a teen says or does something inappropriate, don't criticize them, but do uphold family values," says Manly. "If a teen is upset or irritable, simply say something like, 'It sounds like you're upset' or 'I really appreciate what you have to say. I'll be able to take in your message better when the swearing is left out.'"
Don't force them to see the positive in everything.
It's tempting to tell your kids that every cloud has a silver lining or tell them that everything will be okay, but doing so can come across as dismissive of their feelings, especially in unprecedented circumstances like the COVID-19 outbreak.
"This is well-meaning; however, it gives the child a feeling of not being heard which inevitably can close them off from communicating," says licensed mental health counselor Catherine G. Cleveland, owner of Cleveland Emotional Health. Cleveland notes that not trying to change how they feel "invites them to be more open to sharing." And if you want to know what your kids are really dealing with on a daily basis, check out these 20 Facts That Will Make You So Happy You're Not a Teen Right Now.
Do back-and-forth journaling together.
Journaling is a personal experience—but that doesn't mean it isn't one you can share you're your kids. Therapist Stephanie Longtain, LCSW, co-founder of Human State of Mind Counseling, says that this non-confrontational means of communicating helps parents and their teens open up to one another.
"The parent writes an entry to their teenager—it can include questions, thoughts, ideas, feedback—and the teenager responds and it continues back and forth," explains Longtain. "This reduces pressure and makes it easier to broach certain topics that may be uncomfortable to discuss in person."
Show an interest in their hobbies.
Even if they aren't exactly your cup of tea, participating in your teen's favorite activities with them is a great way to form a stronger bond with them—especially with all the free time you likely have while in quarantine.
"It's easier to talk about something you have in common (lifting weights, your favorite band or TV show, or a creative pursuit) than talking about how things were at school," says Longtain, who notes that they're also more likely to want to spend time with you when you're doing something they enjoy. And with many parents working from home these days, there's never been a better time to squeeze in some of those bonding sessions throughout the day.
Let them show you how to do something.
Just because you want to be a role model to your kids doesn't mean you can't be vulnerable, too.
"There is something about allowing your teenager to see you fail and/or your weaknesses that levels the playing field," says Longtain. "They will see you as more human and less parent." For instance, Longtain says, allow your kid to give you help choosing your outfits or showing you how to use a new app, depending on their particular interests.
Be quiet during car rides.
Taking a car ride with your teen might be one of the few ways either of you are able to get out of the house during the pandemic. And while they may seem like an ideal opportunity to ask your kids questions, staying quiet may actually be more helpful if you want them to open up.
"When you're quiet during a car ride, the ride can become almost meditative, which can help them get into their thoughts," explains licensed psychologist Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group. "If you sit quietly, they are allowed to formulate their thoughts and then begin to talk."
Open up without crossing boundaries.
Being honest about your own worries, from how your work life has changed since the stay home orders hit to your concerns about the safety of older family members, can create an opening for your kids to reveal their own vulnerabilities, too.
"Model using self-disclosure with your kids and use feeling language when you're doing it," Lyons says. "Let them know when you feel happy, proud, and even worried." However, she cautions against disclosing too much, noting that you should still be modeling appropriate boundaries for your relationship.
Ask unexpected questions.
Don't ask your kids the same questions over and over and expect to get different answers.
"No more 'how was your day…what did you do in school today…how are you doing?'" says David Simonsen, PhD, LMFT. Instead, he recommends asking what makes them laugh, what makes them sad, or what makes them nervous to get a deeper understand of who your child is as a person.
Avoid asking "why" questions.
Instead of asking your teen why, try asking them to speak to their feelings about what happened instead.
"When we use the word why when asking others questions, it implies a sense of judgement, which puts others on the defensive," says psychotherapist Ryan G. Beale, founder and chief executive officer of Prepare U and Therapy Live.
Even if you're limited to a walk around the neighborhood or some wind sprints in your back yard, getting your blood pumping by doing something active with your teen will get those conversations flowing in no time.
"When they are actively involved in other tasks, including [ones that] are physically challenging, or competitive, they are less self-conscious," says drama therapist Yaela Orelowitz. "This diverted attention will often lead to a more trusting expression of self and vulnerability."
Engage them on their home turf.
While it may be tempting to hold court in your kitchen or bedroom, spending time with them somewhere they're comfortable is a better choice.
"If your teen spends a lot of time in [their] bedroom, drop by, flop on the bed, and talk about what they are doing right then," says Dallas-based neuropsychologist Michelle Bengtson. "If they are watching TikTok, ask them to show you their favorites, then comment on them, and ask questions like, 'what makes it your favorite?'"
Ask them for their help.
Kids love feeling useful, so try asking them to help you with something to keep them engaged.
"When our kids are involved in activities, and they aren't being watched or under the spotlight, they're more likely to open up and converse," says Bengtson, who suggests having them tackle some household chores with you to give them a chance to reveal their feelings.
Ask what their friends are talking about.
It may not always be comfortable for your kids to discuss what's going on with them specifically, but asking them how their friends are doing can be a great icebreaker to start he conversation.
"This is especially important during our current pandemic," says Michelle Nietert, a licensed professional counselor based in Dallas. "Ask what their friends are worried about, or concerned about. As they share what's going on with their friends, parents will get a better idea of what's going on in their own teen's world."
Don't react emotionally to the things they share with you.
If you want your kid to open up to you, it's in your best interest—and theirs—to maintain a neutral stance, regardless of what it is they say, especially in a time when emotions are likely to be heightened.
"If we react calmly and simply ask again the next day, we are modeling the behavior that they will eventually adapt," Hans Watson, DO, a neuropsychiatrist and psychotherapist at University Elite PLLC. "If you react with anger, the teen's defenses will raise and hamper future communication."
Don't try to teach lessons in every interaction.
It may be tempting to try to impart your wisdom to your children when you speak with them, but holding back every now and then will serve you better in the long run.
"By being willing to teach a lesson over many interactions, a teen will start to trust more and communication will increase," says Watson, who notes that teenagers' frontal lobes are still developing and won't learn from single lessons alone.
While you may feel discouraged when your kid refuses to open up to you initially, that doesn't mean you should give up hope.
"Even though teenagers often give answers that don't offer any real information, the daily inquiry demonstrates that you care and are likely a trusted individual in their life," says Watson.
Talk about a time you made a mistake.
You may be reticent to admit your failings to your children, but letting them know you're fallible may actually be the key to getting them to disclose their inner workings to you.
"Tell your teenager a story about you where you admit you made a mistake and what you learned from it," suggests human behavior expert Patrick Wanis, PhD. "When you choose to open up and share your humanness, your imperfections, mistakes and regrets, you are demonstrating vulnerability and indirect acceptance."
Do an art project together.
A little creativity might be all it takes to get your kids to start talking—and besides, who couldn't use a fun distraction right now?
"Have them help you create a Spotify playlist. If you have paint, have them paint an object or free paint on a piece of paper/canvas," suggests Sarah Roffe, LCSW, CCLS, a psychotherapist and co-founder of Kind Minds Therapy.
Admit that you don't know what they're going through.
Just because you were a teenager once doesn't mean you actually know what your kid is going through—or how they're feeling about the current state of the world.
"We all have a desire to connect based on shared experiences, but most of us have not had our high school experience abruptly cut short, or prom cancelled," says Pamela Schuller, a teen mental health expert and director of The Jewish Board's Here.Now program. Her recommendation? "Instead of telling them it will be okay, validate that it's painful and frustrating," she says.
Ask what they need.
Sometimes, finding out what your kids are feeling—and what they need from you—is simple. Just ask!
"Ask your teen what they need and what would help them feel the most supported," suggests Schuller, also noting that adults are frequently too solutions-oriented when trying to deal with them. "There are situations in which they just need to feel what they are feeling and sit in the sadness, uncertainty, or disappointment."