This article was originally published on “Around the Table” and has been republished here with permission from the author.
My friend Peggy, from Washington state,
says that when their boys were young teens “They had a habit of bolting
down food and then saying, ‘C’nibescuzed?’ My husband would always
reply, ‘No. You can sit here and entertain us with bright
Can you relate? We had at least one teen in our house during 16 years and we learned a few things during that time. I wish we had put more into practice, but here is some of what we figured out along the way with a little help from my friends.
1. Be available to talk
I recognized how important this was when I was on vacation and sharing a bedroom with one of my daughters. I was exhausted and came into the room for a nap, but she was crying. I really wanted to ignore that and go to sleep, but I pushed past the tiredness and started talking–mostly listening–to her as she told me about her broken heart. Later she told me she felt so loved when I just listened.
I asked Rachel, the grown daughter of friends of ours who now has five kids of her own, what her parents did to keep communication open as they were a model family for me. She said, “I feel like one or the other parent was home 95% of the time we as kids were home. My memories of communication as a teenager almost always involve me sitting on a stool in the kitchen while my mom made dinner, sharing my problems with her. She was just always available.” (Emphasis mine.)
Several of my friends mentioned how doing some activity side-by-side rather than facing each other helped their kids open up. This could be anything from riding in the car to doing dishes. It just seems easier to open up when you don’t make eye contact.
2. Listen without Criticism
Okay, so we didn’t always do a great job on this, but we tried to bite our tongues. If you get them to express their thoughts, don’t jump in and refute or tear down. It’s amazing how often they perceive what we say as criticism–whether it is tone of voice or the way we word a question. And who wants to talk to someone who just picks apart their every opinion?
3. Minimize the rules
My favorite book that helped with this was Have a New Teenager by Friday by Kevin Leman (my favorite parenting author). He didn’t spend a lot of time making rules, he just expected responsible behavior and, when necessary, brought out consequences when they didn’t live up to that. Rachel said, “I don’t remember my parents handing down many rules to us from middle school on; they seemed to address things on a situational basis. They made us responsible for our own choices…treating us as the adults we would become…and held us accountable for our actions (like the time I put a hot iron on the carpet, and then had to pay to replace it!)”
4. Be a Student of Your Teen’s Interests
Because my husband is interested in airplanes and airlines, our sons developed the same interest. Whenever I flew somewhere alone one of them was sure to ask, “What kind of plane did you fly on?” My answer: “Um, two wings and enough engines to get us there.” You can be sure that didn’t win points.
Then I discovered that that safety card they always tell you to look at tells you what kind of plane you are on! So I made sure to memorize that and to take a minute to look around at the seat configuration–was it two on the left, three on the right, or a wide-body with two-four-two?
I also listened more closely when the news had something about airplanes–a crash, a new plane unveiled, an airline merger. Anything thing that they would be interested in. That way I had something to ask them about like, “So what’s up with the 737 Max?”
You can do the same kind of investigation for whatever it is that interests your teen.
5. Read What They Read (aka Watch What they Watch, Listen to What They Listen To)
You know that novel they have been complaining about having to read for the last two weeks? Have you ever read it? Check it out of the library and read it. Then ask questions about the book. (You might sneak a peak at Spark Notes and get some ideas.) Don’t be their teacher, but if you are genuinely interested in what they think about the book, they will probably talk. Check out what they are reading just for fun, too. I’m a reader, so this came naturally to me.
Even if you think the show is inane, watch it with your kids and talk about it. If there are back stories you need to know, ask them for an explanation. After, ask “What is your favorite thing about this show?”
It wasn’t so natural for me to listen to the music they listened to. I flat out didn’t like some of it and was glad it was on earbuds. I could have done so much better here, finding out the words and listening with them. Kids think about the words more when listening through a parent’s ears.
6. Invite Their Friends for Meals
When kids go to other people’s houses they rise to the occasion in the politeness area. You can ask the guest a few questions about what they are doing, what’s going on at school, the novel they are reading, and they’ll answer even if your teen won’t. This will give you information about your teen.
7. Volunteer to be the Carpool Mom
Another way to get your kids to talk is to listen to them talk to their friends–you can eavesdrop in a car without guilt! You learn a lot, especially if you don’t butt in with your opinion. This information enables you to ask questions later that might spark a conversation. Were they all complaining about a bad call by the ref at last week’s game? At dinner you might ask, “What’s everyone saying about that game-losing ref call Friday night?” and possibly follow up with, “What does it take to be a good ref?”
While questions are good, don’t become the inquisition either. Ask open ended questions where they can express their opinions and cultivate an environment where they know they are free to express what they really think.
8. Be supportive
Rachel told me, “Even when we were less communicative, or even when we made choices that they wouldn’t have made, they continually showed us verbal and physical affection, and they celebrated our achievements and our personalities.”
The daughter I listened to instead of napping called me on Mother’s Day this year to say, “Thank you Mom for always being there and for never giving up on me.”
Peggy’s sons are now grown men who come for dinner every Friday night. Peggy encourages us, “Something must have worked because now, many years later, we enjoy their bright conversation.”