How to Talk to a Reluctant Teen

Six ideas for starting conversations with reluctant teens

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

How do you start a conversation with a reluctant teen? Here are six ideas to try.

Starting a Conversation With Your Teen

1. Talk about a “neutral” issue. Not every conversation has to be about feelings and relationships. Read a book and discuss the choices the characters made. Watch a movie and talk about it (see Take an article from a teen magazine and discuss it. Share thoughts about the last sermon the two of you heard.

2. Use time at the table. Family dinners encourage conversations, but let everybody share the load. Think of a few questions for people to answer, and avoid judging the replies. Some possible topics: quizzes at school, favorite films, reports due, assemblies attended, geography trivia, headline news.

3. Refine your questions. Learn to ask gentle questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer. Let’s say you and your teen are at a Mexican restaurant. You might start the conversation by asking:

“How is life going for you?”

If your teen just shrugs and bites into that giant burrito, try some less-sweeping queries. “What level of your video game are you at now? What’s the most challenging thing about it?”

“How do you think basketball is going? Where do you want to improve? What’s Coach Welch say about the team’s prospects?”

If your teen still doesn’t want to talk about herself, get her talking about her friends. “What do you like best about Sara?”

4. Make the most of drive time. Tired of being your teen’s chauffeur? Unless talking in the car disturbs your concentration as a driver, discuss topics that come up naturally. That might include the weather, where your teen would like to go if he could go anywhere, the rudeness of a driver who cuts you off or the kinds of cars your teen likes.

5. Use the cover of darkness. Some kids find it easier to talk at night, especially in the dark. If you go into your teen’s room at bedtime to pray, ask for a prayer request; it might lead to his opening up and sharing concerns.

Another nighttime opportunity: Greeting your teen after a date, offering a snack and making yourself available for a chat. One parent told us, “We found that if we waited up for them after a date or a night out with friends, they seemed to let down their guard and share more. Some of our best talks happened late at night. And we would have missed them if we’d just hollered out a ‘Did you lock the door?’ from our bedroom.”

Be sure not to turn these post-date wrap-ups into the Spanish Inquisition, though. My wife and I would start things off with a cheery, “Hey, welcome home! We were just wanting to get a bowl of ice cream with you. Is that okay?” We tried not to stare into their eyes. We’d get that cold stuff on a spoon; right before shoveling it in, we’d ask, “How was it?”

Other after-date conversation starters might include, “You looked so great tonight when you went out. Did you feel that way, too?” “I had fun meeting your date. What was he like?” “What was the best part about tonight?”

6. Try commercial conversations. Watch a favorite TV show together and talk during the commercials. View a football game and talk during the halftime show. Watch the news and discuss the stories during the breaks. These short bursts of communication, conducted without having to sit face-to-face, may be just the thing for the really reluctant talker.

Tools for Dealing With Conflict

Confrontations happen in practically every home, but they’re guaranteed when you and your teen aren’t close. How can you communicate in a way that helps you reconnect?

Here are a dozen tips for talking your way through conflict:

1. Start strong. Psychologists say the first three minutes of a conversation generally dictate how the rest of it will go. Begin a confrontation with a soft voice and respect for your teen, and it’s likely that the confrontation will be more productive and less destructive. As one teen testifies, “My mom and I had effective communication because I was treated as an equal. Not in terms of who was in charge (that was clear) but in that I had a voice.”

2. Let your teen speak first. Young people we surveyed said that if they have a chance to talk first, they’re more receptive to what their parents say. Once teens get to speak their minds, they’re usually willing to listen to the other side.

3. Don’t interrupt. It’s tempting to dive in and react to a piece of what your teen just said, but one girl described how that looks from her point of view: “My parents interrupt me and lecture/yell. Then while they’re talking and I want to get a word in, I’m yelled at for interrupting. It’s really unfair.” If either of you tends to talk nonstop, set a timer for two or three minutes and take turns.

4. Watch your tone of voice and body language. Model what you want your teen to do. When parents yell or use sarcasm or point fingers, kids figure it’s okay for them to do the same. They also put on their protective gear and get into “fight” position. If you turn angry, use a quieter, calmer voice. If nothing else, your teen will have to listen harder to hear you.

5. Explain what you want and why. Some teens say they just don’t understand what their parents are asking them to do. Have your teen restate what you’ve told him. Explain the reasons for your request or rule. For example: “I understand you’d like to be with your friends at the concert. But you’ve been out late every night this week and you can hardly get out of bed in the morning. That’s not good for you, or for your schoolwork. Maybe next time.”

6. Fight fair. No name-calling. Stick to the issue at hand. Don’t dredge up past failures. Avoid the words “always” and “never,” and don’t compare your teen with anyone — living or dead, related or unrelated.

7. Don’t beat your teen over the head with Bible verses or biblical concepts. Sure, it’s crucial to pass principles from God’s Word on to your child. But most arguments don’t qualify as “teachable moments.” Your teen won’t be too receptive if you declare, “I don’t care if it makes you look like a nerd! You’ll wear that orange sweater to school because the Bible says to obey your parents. Besides, vanity is a sin!”

8. Give weight to your teen’s feelings and opinions. You may think it’s just “realistic” to tell your teen, “So, the girls said mean things about you. Forget it. You have to get used to people doing that.” Instead of feeling like you’ve just prepared her for the real world, though, your teen will feel dismissed and misunderstood.

9. Don’t try to control your teen’s side of the confrontation. It doesn’t work! Let’s say your teen is “sassing” you. You could retort, “You will not talk to me like that!” Not a good move, since a statement like this challenges him to prove he, not you, controls his tongue. Instead you could say, “I’ll be happy to listen to you when you speak to me more respectfully.” Now you’re saying what you will do — something you can control.

10. Keep the issues in perspective. How important is this fight, anyway? Is it possible to work toward a win-win solution, or at least one everybody can live with? Are you choosing your battles wisely? Stand up for the values that are most important to you and to your teen’s welfare — but consider flexibility on lesser matters.

11. Take a break when necessary. If you or your teen are getting too wound up, take a time out. It doesn’t hurt to put a conflict on the back burner until people calm down.

12. When talking fails, write a letter. Writing gives you time to sort through your thoughts and express yourself carefully. It gives your teen time to respond instead of reacting defensively. A notebook passed back and forth can work, too; so does e-mail. That’s what a mom and dad discovered when their 13-year-old son wanted to see an R-rated movie; they kept telling him no, and he kept arguing. Finally Mom wrote him an e-mail, explaining their reasons. The boy never asked about it again, and seemed warmer toward his parents than he’d been in quite a while.

Want to close the gap between you and your teen? Communicating is the key to every relationship, even yours. It’s never too late to start communicating with your teen.

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