So what should you do now that your teen has become a hermit crab in the area of communication? Bridging this communication divide isn’t easy, but there are things parents can do to help the process along and encourage their child to open up about their life.
1. Don’t pry
When a teen clams up, a parent’s first tendency is to try and pry them open again with all the tack of a burglar taking a crowbar to a locked door. This only makes things worse. “Prying does not work,” note Babcock and Keepers. “It convinces our children that their autonomy is actually in jeopardy.” (1976, p. 172) Taking a more passive approach is more likely to get results: “I’d like to talk to you about such things, whenever you’re ready, but I won’t try to force you to do so.”
It’s not like you can waterboard your child to get them to talk, and so what they do or don’t tell you is entirely up to them anyway. And just like waterboarding, prying is likely to produce lies and misinformation. A teen will invent things to placate you even as their true self slips father and farther from your reach.
2. Utilize conversation tools
Trying to bring up a subject out of nowhere is the most difficult way to talk to your teen. The more unnatural it seems, the more difficult the conversation, and the more reserved your child is going to be. It helps to use an assortment of tools to jump-start the dialogue.
Try to keep magazines around the house such as Seventeen, Vogue, Men’s Journal, and so on. Give them a quick read so you know a little about what’s inside before setting them out in your living room. This way if you notice your child flipping through them, you can start a discussion about one of the topics. Try to watch television with your child, since this presents many opportunities for discussion. If your child is into a particular sports team or hobby, learn more about their interests and use this to get the dialogue rolling.
3. Establish rituals
You can’t just turn your child on and off like a light switch a whenever you want to talk about something. So the key to keeping connected is to ensure there are plenty of opportunities for a child to reach out. A good way to do this is to establish rituals.
Set aside a time every week or every other week to take your teen out to a relaxed breakfast or lunch break where the two of you can talk alone. Or go on a hiking trip or any other excursion that will give you some one on one time without a whole lot of distractions. You might let your son or daughter buy a magazine to look at during the trip. Not only does it make the potential silence less uncomfortable, but it can make for a good discussion tool.
Expect that your child may not open up at first. In fact, the first time you try this she may even snap at you with something like, “Why do you care? You’re never around, and now all of a sudden you think you can take me out for breakfast and I’ll spill my guts. Whatever…” Be prepared for this possibility, and stay the course. Don’t give up just because you spend the first trip in virtual silence. Not only is this normal, but she may be testing you to see how committed you actually are.
4. Clear the air
If you’re reading these words, chances are you haven’t always been the most tactful communicator. (It’s okay, it happens to the best of us.) There’s also a good chance that this old dirty laundry is blocking the channels of communication in the present. Therefore it often helps to apologize and clear the air, asking that you and your teen hit the reset button.
Make it clear to your teen that you’re evolving as a parent and want to change things going forward. Here is a sample statement that you can modify to fit your own circumstances:
We don’t seem to talk much anymore, and I know I’m at least partly to blame for that. I know sometimes I can overreact/can be too judgmental/have a quick temper/haven’t always been there when you needed me, and in the past I’ve had a tendency to jump on you/be too critical/be to nosy, but I’m working to try and change all that. I do want to know what’s going on in your life and have a good relationship where we communicate well with one another. So from now on, I’ll try to do a better job of listening without judging, and let’s start over from this moment going forward.
It’s important to get this message out there, to make it clear that you’re willing to put forth the effort and bridge the gap. Don’t expect your child to instantly open up. It may take weeks or months before anything happens. You’re planting a seed, and just like any seed, it takes time to grow. But one day your child will have something on her mind, and she’ll remember these words, which may make all the difference in whether she decides to open up to you.
5. Tone yourself down when it comes to judgment
Judgmental behaviors (discussed in our earlier section on judgmental parents and statements) are a big roadblock to healthy communication. So if you can learn to tone these down, it will go a long way towards getting your teen to open up. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you put forth a conscientious effort to limit judgmental statements, they will slowly start to trust you with more information.
6. Make yourself vulnerable
It’s not good to approach communication like a one-sided trust game. So if you want your teen to open up to you and spill their guts, one of the best ways to do this is to show a little bit of vulnerability yourself. Tell them stories about the humiliating things you went through as a teen. Talk about your insecurities and how they affected you. If you make yourself vulnerable to your teen, they will be much more likely to return the favor.
7. Proceed cautiously!
Most of all, remember that whenever your teen does open up, he or she is at their most vulnerable. Insensitive words or looks on this occasion can seriously damage the relationship they have with you.