Do you recognize that notorious bit of prose? It’s the six-word vocabulary list teens have conspired to use exclusively when talking to their parents. Add a mobile phone to that equation and that six-word list is reduced to a muffled “uh huh” . . . and that’s on a talkative day.
That generalization is in no way meant as a jab to our awesome teens. They didn’t cause the word draught and they often don’t have the tools to fix it. As new relationships, interests, and behaviors emerge and teens begin to embrace their independence, common ground with a parent gets harder to come by. Suddenly, the typical 20-plus year gap between parent and child can feel like a century or two. (C’mon parent, who wants to talk to a guy who lectures you like Thomas Jefferson when you can Snapchat that cute guy from science class? #OMG!)
Just don’t beat yourself up about the gap or the lack of words to fill it. I am a writer with a journalism background. I’ve interviewed hundreds of zip-lipped people over the years and still found ways to get a rock to talk. However, when it comes to extracting information from my teens, I feel like a tourist in a foreign country asking for directions . . . in a hurricane.
So hang in there. This season of drought is temporary (or so I’ve been repeatedly assured). Remember: Your kids may not talk to you as much as they used to but do not be fooled by their aloofness they still need to talk.
7 ways to spark conversation with your teen:
1. Ask open-ended questions. Stay away from questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.” Instead of asking “Did you have a good day at school?” consider asking, “So what was the funniest thing that happened at school today?” (Change out ‘funniest’ with ‘worst,’ ‘coolest,’ or ‘weirdest.’)
2. Connect with their passion. If you can start a conversation with a topic that is of special interest to your teen, you can easily introduce other topics that you want or need to discuss. I often ask my very artistic son: “So what are you working on this week?” and follow up with, “So what inspired that theme in your work?”
3. Stop talking and listen. You can use a dozen fail-proof strategies to get your teen to open up more but if you don’t listen, you will soon be back to one-word answers. Listening without interrupting tells the person speaking that your desire is to understand how they feel or what they think. Genuine listening builds trust, which is gold between a parent and child.
4. Feed in small bites. Teen attention spans tend to be short so keep it simple. Don’t flood your son or daughter with multiple topics or questions at once. Likewise, know when to wrap it up before a good conversation becomes a lecture. Learn to appreciate the gift of regular dialogue with your teen. Remember, your son or daughter’s brain is not calibrated match your enthusiasm on certain topics, so be wise and manage your expectations.
5. Learn to add humor. In my experience teens are slow to trust or open up to adults who don’t know how to laugh. Whenever possible, bring a light-hearted spirit to your conversations. Pepper your everyday banter with randomness and goofy observations and don’t be afraid to risk looking silly. You can also find common ground in television comedies your son or daughter enjoys. I once taped a whole season of The Colbert Show and The Office because my then 17 year-old was such a big fan. I am now a Colbert and Office convert and use dialogue or expressions from the shows to connect with my son.
6. Take advantage of drive time. Sometimes sitting down-face-to-face can be intimidating or make a teen censor his or her thoughts before speaking. But when eye contact isn’t required words tend to flow more freely. When my kids were younger I used to wait until bedtime to talk. Almost on cue, once the lights were out, both my son and daughter opened up more. Now that they are older, the car seems to do the trick. The best conversations now happen on the drive to/from school or simply running errands.
7. Play the high-low game. I’ve saved my favorite for last. We’ve played “hi-low” with our kids since they were old enough to talk. We simply go around the table at dinnertime (or after story time when they were young) and play “high-low.” One by one, each member of the family shares the high (the best) part of their day and then the low (the worst) part of their day. It’s amazing what significant information is shared that could easily have slipped by unspoken. Often a brief “hi-lo” answer expands into a much longer story or dialogue.
What conversation starters work best in your family? Please share!
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @SafeEyes.