When your children are small, they talk incessantly. Toddlers lack a shut-up filter and are incapable of not expressing every thought they have every second of every day. Parents of toddlers spend their days wondering if they’ll ever get a moment’s peace. When my kids were little, I can remember mothers of teens wistfully telling me that their talkative toddler had been replaced with a sullen, mute teen, and how they’d give anything to get their kid to talk again. It made me worry: When my kid reached those dreaded teen years, would I be doomed to silence, door slamming, and eye rolling too?
Well, here we are, and I’ve come to learn that the quiet, moody teen thing is somewhat of a myth. Teens actually talk a lot — mostly to their friends, but they do communicate. As parents of teens, it’s our job to learn their language. Not every teen comes home from school, stomps up to their bedroom, and blares music until dinnertime. Teens don’t always clam up and hide their lives from their parents, and not all of them think that grown-ups are stupid. I know this because I have a teen who talks to me — a lot.
My friends are often shocked by how open our children are with us. I’ve been asked, “How do you do it?” and “What’s the magic secret to getting my teen to spill it?” I can’t say I have all the answers, but I do have a few tried and true techniques for talking to teens that have worked for us:
1. Tell Them the Truth
Teens talk, and not just about sports, Justin Bieber, and video games. Their hormones are running amuck and their bodies are changing rapidly. They start experimenting sexually and that can lead to embarrassing questions that they need answered. If you want your teen to come to you for honest answers about sex, you have to commit to telling them the truth early on, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
My son recently asked me about oral sex, and while a big part of me wanted to crawl into a hole and die, an even bigger part of me wanted to make sure he understood the magnitude of what he was asking. I wanted him to realize that there are more than just mechanics behind a sexual act. I wanted him to know that there are big responsibilities that come with acting like a grown-up. Some kid in the locker room couldn’t possibly have explained that to him.
2. Learn to Speak Their Language
Teens are notorious texters, and deciphering their text abbreviations can be laborious and confusing. But speaking their language goes far beyond understanding what ROTFL and LOL mean in a text. If your teen develops an interest in something you don’t understand, learn about it so you can find some common ground on those hard to communicate days. You may not love playing Call of Duty or listening to Taylor Swift on repeat, but you should do it anyway.
My son is a Star Wars fanatic and my knowledge of that franchise is limited at best. But I’ve watched the movies with him and I’m learning not to call Return of The Jedi “The Third Movie” anymore. And while I can’t say that I’ve become a Jedi Master, sitting on the couch with him in silence while we watch the movie has certainly helped with the Dark Side of parenting.
3. Tell Them About Your Teen Self — The REAL Version
Every parent wants to appear infallible in their teen’s eyes, but let’s be honest: You were no angel when you were 16, were you? I’m not advocating that you divulge all of your teenage transgressions, but teens really respond to adults who appear human and not above reproach. My daughter has appreciated hearing about my own battles with a middle school mean girl, and it’s been a good springboard for discussion. Telling her about that painful time has helped her in similar situations.
And I’ve been forthright in discussing with my son the few times I got in trouble in high school. There’s a reason you made those mistakes back then — so you could learn from them, but even better, so your kids could learn from you. Don’t let that time you outran the cops for a speeding ticket only to be caught by your father go to waste. Ahem.
4. Talk in the Car
The best talks I have ever had with my teens have been while I’m behind the wheel. I don’t know if it’s the comfort of speaking without direct eye contact or the fact that the kids trust that I won’t hit a tree if they drop a bombshell, but the car is our place for total honesty. Sometimes, between ’80s hits on the radio station, my son will confide in me while we are on the road. I turn the radio down and let him use the car as his confessional. It’s not as exciting as carpool karaoke with Adele in the passenger seat, but dammit, it’s worth driving the extra 15 minutes home to keep that kid talking.
As with anything, you get what you give with teens. If you are honest and forthright, your teen will come to return the favor. And, if you have to watch Star Wars a hundred and fifty times in order to bond with your teen, so be it. At least you’ll get to stare at Harrison Ford.