Jessica is used to her son replying with grunt answers to her questions, but lately even her daughter, Maria, is responding to questions with grunts and few details. Jessica loves her children and wants to know about their days, thoughts and feelings. She wants to connect with them.
Recently at bedtime Jessica decided to lie next to Maria on her bed, which she had not done since Maria was a child. Maria seemed confused at first, but quickly figured out her mom wasn’t going away. They started talking about plans for the next day, but 90 minutes later they were still talking.
Like Jessica, many parents want quality time with their teens, but they don't understand that it's all about being present when you're with them.
Why is connecting so hard?
Some parents assume that connecting with their teens is difficult because of their children’s technology use. In my role working with kids, teens tell me their parents’ use of technology is a factor. But honestly, it’s both.
Teens often turn to technology when they’re stressed, lonely and bored. Why don’t they turn to parents?
Here’s what teens tell me:
“My parents are busy. They’re always distracted and running around.”
“My mom’s on her phone a lot. Like all the time.”
“I don’t want to bring up important stuff because as soon as I do, my mom gets a text or call. I don’t want to be halfway through a hard talk so I don’t start.”
“My dad doesn’t seem to care. He kind of asks how I’m doing, but he doesn’t stick around for the answer. He’s so impatient.”
These comments are not just what teens say. You may be thinking the same things about your teens.
What’s a solution?
Parents need to lead by example first. We need to turn off our phones, put them down and stay fully present because our children need to know they are our priority. If our kids have the impression that our tech time is more important than they are, we can ask them for forgiveness. If their attitudes have discouraged us, we can explain that to them. Showing them we care about our relationship will encourage them to trust us and try to communicate again.
We need to check our motivations and attitudes. If we’re asking questions about their day because we feel obligated, they’ll know it. If we’re talking with them to get it over with so we can move onto something else, they’ll feel it.
We need to be humble, teachable, courageous and other-centered. We need to be diligent and follow through to establish new communication patterns. Reconnecting probably won’t be immediate or easy or comfortable. But our teens are worth the effort.
Questions to ask
Some questions engage teens more than others. Teens tell me they prefer talking about “stuff that matters” without being judged for every idea.
The internet, constant news coverage, text alerts and social media posts make teens aware of problems in their community and around the world. They can be overwhelmed, full of questions and unsure how to process their emotions.
These questions tend to engage them:
- What problems do you want to help solve?
- What people groups do you want to serve?
- What breaks your heart?
- What gives you joy?
Jessica asked Maria that first question, which resulted in their 90 minutes of sharing. Jessica had no idea the many things Maria was concerned about and confused by. They connected deeper than they had in a long time. And they’ve both initiated many follow-up conversations.
Other questions that encourage longer and deeper conversations are those that indicate you pay attention to your children. Questions that go beyond the “How was school?” or “How did you do?”:
- What’s one thing you learned about today? (Fill in the blank with something you know your child is currently studying. For example, the stock market, inventions that changed the world or the book she’s reading. Or complete the question with “yourself,” “a friend” or “a teacher.”)
- What’s one thing you learned or did in today? (Fill in the blank with a subject, such as biology or choir, that your child is studying.)
- What was surprising today? Disappointing? Interesting? Boring? Easy? Difficult?
- What or who encouraged you today? Who did you encourage today?
- What have you been thinking a lot about lately?
Get them talking
Chanel’s son, Joey, has an entrepreneurial spirit. When he wanted summer spending money, he asked his mom to help him find ideas on Pinterest. After looking over the site, they headed to a craft store for further inspiration. As they walked the aisles, Joey talked about what was going on at school and youth group. He answered Chanel’s follow-up questions without getting irritated. And they found two projects for Joey to invest in.
Boys, especially, talk more when they’re doing something with you, which makes vulnerability more likely. Talking while you’re busy works because teens can avoid your eyes. They tell me they don’t like looking into your eyes if they need to share something that may hurt or concern you. This is also why talking at bedtime in a darkened room or while you’re driving works well.
A game atmosphere can also encourage good give-and-take because everyone can relax. Shoot hoops, put together jigsaw puzzles and play board games. The quicker pace and randomness help everyone be less guarded and more spontaneous. Teens tell me they don’t feel as picked on when a parent uses “games” like these:
- Roll a die. Whatever number you roll is how many things you have to share about your day. For instance, if you roll a 5, you must share five things. If your son rolls a 1, he shares one thing.
- Use two dice and assign different topics to each number (e.g., 5 = skip your turn; 6 = friends; 7 = character quality you used; 8 = something surprising; 9 = art, music, PE or a current event; 10 = science, math or history; 11 = ask me anything; and 12 = What you were doing at 10 a.m.?). Whatever number you roll is what you talk about. Your son who rolls a 10 and had math class can talk about what he did in class, what he learned and/or how he did.
- Create a Go Fish pile by putting numbers, topics and school subjects similar to the dice game on index cards. The card you draw determines what you talk about.
When we know the roles we’ve played in our teen’s world — uninterested, tech-obsessed, busy or distracted parent — and the roles we want to play—passionate, tech-free, available and focused — we can change and connect in more meaningful ways with our teens.
Every Parent's Guide to Navigating our Digital World - Fuller Youth Institute
Kathy Koch, Ph.D., is founder of Celebrate Kids, Inc.