It’s hard to know how to talk to teenagers when they won’t talk to you. A few years ago, I had a student in my class who insisted on sitting in the back row, his hoodie pulled up and his arms folded. He never spoke. After a few weeks, I asked to meet with his mother. During our conversation, I brought up the fact that his grandmother had passed away. It was obvious from his writing that she’d meant a lot to him, and it was obvious from his mother’s face that she didn’t realize he’d been so affected.
The more we talked, the more we realized she didn’t know much about her son—not because she was uninterested, but because he was so closed off. Sound familiar? If you want to get your guarded teen to open up, here are 7 things to try.
1. Consider your teen’s gender.
Boys usually like to talk side by side so they don’t feel so vulnerable. They’re also more likely to open up if they’re moving, so try walking or biking while you talk. Girls, on the other hand, usually prefer to talk face-to-face so they can read body language. And as most women know, girls often need nothing more than a place to sit and a nice cup of coffee or tea before they start to open up.
2. Use your teen’s interests, even if they’re not your own.
Figure out what your teen likes to do, and find some way to enjoy it with him. Sit on the couch and play a video game with him, ask her to show you some TikTok videos, or let him pick the music next time you’re in the car. Once you have that shared experience, you have a natural opening to deeper conversation.
3. Start small and light.
I once met a mom who wanted to find out if her teen was sexually active, but didn’t even know her favorite subject in school. Make sure you know your teen’s favorite food, friend, and flavor of ice cream (among other things) before venturing to ask a teen about his or her sexual activity.
4. Be available to listen.
If you’re struggling with how to talk to teenagers when they seem closed off, the answer might just be to talk less. Teens universally dread the parental lecture, but they want to know they’ve been heard, so make yourself available to listen. And resist the temptation to start thinking about how you will respond until after they’re done talking. Most teens will be happy to give you time to think about your answer when they know you’ve actually listened.
Teens universally dread the parental lecture, but they want to know they’ve been heard, so make yourself available to listen.
5. Validate his or her feelings.
Make sure your teen knows it’s OK to feel the way he or she does—even if the feelings are not pretty or comfortable. Everyone gets jealous or angry from time to time. It’s what we do about those feelings that matters most. We might not be able to control how we feel, but we can control how we act.
6. Control your emotions, even if your teen doesn’t.
Teens are still emotionally immature. That means that when feelings run high, many teens will lose the ability to manage their emotions. We, as adults, should be emotionally mature, so even when our teens rage against the injustices committed against them, we have to try our hardest to keep our cool.
7. Give praise often.
Make it specific and do it often. Instead of telling him or her how smart he or she is, praise your teen for doing well on specific tests and projects. Being specific will give you more opportunities to praise, and your teen will know that you’re paying attention. And be sure to compliment him or her in front of your friends. Kids love to hear their parents brag about them.
Have you dealt with a closed-off kid? What advice can you share on how to talk to teenagers when they don’t want to talk to you?