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Ask your teenager questions the right way.

Updated: Mar 21

Hello again! After a summer pause, I'd like to share a topic that came up recently while hiking with a friend.

What is the best way to engage with our teenagers so they willingly share what they think and feel?

With school looming, conversation with my friend had turned to our teenagers and their state of mind. What do they most look forward to this year and why? What do they least look forward to and why? How are changing friendship dynamics affecting them? What are they most worried about right now? I realized how much questioning, postulating, and even outright guessing we were doing about how our own children actually feel.

Shouldn't a parent know? It's not easy to know when your chatty child has grown into a close-booked teenager with a private life and thoughts they no longer feel inclined to share every detail of.

Too often, in spite of the best of intentions, conversations with our teenagers fizzle before getting anywhere meaty. The moment judgement seeps in, conversation shuts down. Comparisons are also a no-no. Starting any sentence with, "I think you should..." is going to make eyes roll. Reminisce about your own experience as a guideline for your teen, and you'll likely find yourself talking to an empty room.

There is a way to keep conversation going. It all comes down to how questions are asked, and how you respond to what you are hearing. Here are three simple suggestions:

1. Ask open ended questions. These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no', and instead require your teenager to offer well thought out perspectives and opinions. Open ended questions begin with 'what', 'how', 'why'. They are for gathering insights, not just answers.

2. Use the phrase, "Tell me about..." often. Just like open ended questions, it's an invitation to open up.

3. Listen and reflect without judgement. Give your teenager your full attention, and reflect on what you heard instead of jumping in with advice. Try using phrases such as, "I think I heard you say..." or "Would I be correct to think you meant..." Being an active sounding board will help them hear and clarify their own thoughts.

Practice makes perfect. If you find yourself asking a 'yes' or 'no' question, rephrase it right then and there. I catch myself all the time. Instead of, "Do you like your new science class?" try "How do you like your new science class?." Instead of, "Did Mindy give you a hard time?" try "How did Mindy's behavior affect you today?" It makes a big difference to the answer you'll get, and opens the door to further conversation.

You may think this is too simplistic. Too obvious. Too easy. Or, I've heard this before. I do this already and my teenager still doesn't talk to me.

In response, my challenge to you is to truly listen to yourself. I suspect you will catch yourself asking yes or no questions. I suspect you will hear judgment creep into conversation more often than you'd like. I suspect you won't always like the way you hear yourself talking. Ask yourself, "How would I feel if someone was talking to me the way I am talking to my teen?" If the answer is, “I wouldn’t like it,” chances are your kids don’t like it either. The answer to strive for is, "I would feel respected and heard if I were talked to like this."

The shift from summertime to school time can bring up a vast array of emotions, concerns, hopes, and/or fears, so now is a good time to check in and see how your teenager feels about re-entry into school and the year ahead. Use the opportunity to test these suggestions out, and enjoy listening to your teenager open up!



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