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Talking to Teenagers Who Don't Want to Talk

Updated: Mar 21

Parents with teens of the one-word-answer variety, this one's for you. What if your attempts to converse are falling flat? What if they simply won't engage?

Talking to teenagers who don't want to talk

I've encountered this question several times recently, accompanied by a healthy dose of parental frustration. For every chatty teenager who gladly offloads the complaints and frustrations of their day, detailing how they felt at each turn, there's a tight-lipped counterpart who prefers the sound of their own breathing to that of their parents voice.

What to do? Consider the options below. Try one (or a combination) of these to prompt meaningful conversation between you and your teen.

Keep your teen out of the hot seat.

Some teenagers really don't like to be put on the spot. One way to avoid this is to steer clear of direct questions. For example, instead of "How do you feel about your new teacher?" you can ask: "What are your friends saying about the new teacher? Do they like her?". Instead of "How was your soccer game?" try: "What did your teammates remark on during the end of game debrief?" Getting them to talk about their peers may get the ball rolling.

Don't make eye contact.

Consider saving your questions for times when you are not face-to-face, e.g. a drive or a walk. It can be a lot easier for teens to share when they don't have to look at you.

Make yourself interesting.

Take the age old question "How was your day?", oft answered by "Good", or "Fine". If you want your teenager to talk, change the way you talk to them. Engage them in conversation as you do anyone else—by mentioning something interesting you saw or heard, telling a story, or expressing a funny opinion... anything but a question about school. Tell them about experiences they can relate to (e.g. when you've been overwhelmed, disappointed, or desperately wanted something) that make you human and accessible. Share funny habits you keep hidden. Tell them what moves you. Don’t ask them things just to get them talking. Tell them things so they become interested enough in you as a person that they actually want to talk to you and share things too.

Try talking more genuinely rather than trying harder. Instead of peppering your teen with endless questions, hoping something will generate a response, what if you said, “I want so badly to hear about your day that I keep asking the same question (e.g. about school) even though I know you hate it. I just don’t know how else to start a conversation with you, and I want to. Can you help me out here?” Your son or daughter will likely understand what you’re trying to do, and respect your candor in talking about it.

We are creatures of habit. In order to test any one of these, the first step is to recognize an opportune moment, remember your plan to try something new, and implement. It takes self-awareness to shift from one's usual patterns of conversation to something new. You can do it!

Parents, please don't take it personally or let your emotions get the better of you if your teen continues to keep their thoughts to themselves. By virtue of maintaining a steady interest in connecting with them, you send the important message that you are there for them when they are ready. That goes a long, long way.

Hug your teenager today.

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