Just as children navigate new developmental stages, so parents must learn to relate to their children differently in each stage. This can be extremely difficult, especially when your sweet little one who used to share everything with you is navigating the adolescent years and suddenly wants nothing to do with mom and dad. Many parents are curious about how to better relate to their child so that they are willing to open up and share about their life.
Remember, your adolescent is learning how to become more independent, and will inevitably start to push a bit further away from the family. This is normal, and good! Your relationship will change as they learn to become more independent, to develop more intimate friendships, and form their identity. As a parent, you will likely not be your teenager's go to processing buddy, and information may become more limited. With that in mind, here are a few tips in how to cultivate a space where your teen will continue to share with you.
1. Get curious (but not too curious). Casually ask about your child's day, what was great and difficult about their day, what they love right now, what they may need. Let them teach you about the teenage landscape. Remember that teenagers become suspicious and often shut down when they feel they are being interviewed or interrogated. If your teen starts to shut down, ask them "It seems like you don't want to talk right now. I may be asking too many questions, is that right? Maybe we can talk more later."
2. Create a family culture where it is safe to share deeply. If the adults are not modeling how to share about feelings, talk about difficulties, or share joys, teenagers will not magically start talking about their deepest struggles and pains. Work on creating a family culture where everyone can feel safe to share (or not share) as they need. Around the dinner table make a habit of sharing your highs and lows from the day, put a feelings word list up on your kitchen, and practice using feeling words to help give your kids the language to talk about their internal world. When appropriate, share your own struggles that are still in process, not merely ones that have already been figured out.
3. Reflect back. Rather than jumping in with a solution to a struggle, learn to reflect back what your child is saying. Aim to reflect both content and the emotion behind it. If your child shares about a tricky friend situation, you may say "Wow, this conflict with your friends is messy, and you're feeling confused as to what to do." If your child seems irritable in the midst of a big project, you may say "You seem pretty stressed about this presentation," rather than "Why did you procrastinate to the last minute?" Reflective listening communicates care about your child's day and internal world, while respecting their desire to solve their challenges on their own.
4. Ask for feedback. Children and teens are rarely given a voice to make decisions or speak up for themselves. They are often spoken for, preached at, or have decisions made for them. If your child is consistently shutting down in conversations at home, notice it with them and ask what they may need instead. For example, "Tommy I notice that when I ask about your day, you give me one word answers. I really care about you and want to know how you're doing. What could I do differently that would help?" This could be as simple as giving the child 30 minutes of down time after school before asking about their day or planning for homework. Ask when they feel heard, what kinds of things you can do to support them, how you can respect their privacy and independence while staying involved in their life. They may surprise you with their answers!
5. Get in the car. Any parent that has driven carpool can attest to the world of information that opens up when your kids share with their friends in the car. It's as if the children completely forget that an adult is present, and the parent gets a sneak peak into their child's world. If you hear something in the car that your child hasn't shared with you, don't use this against them as a secret weapon. Instead, follow up with a gentle question later when friends aren't around. Teenagers in particular may be intimidated by face to face conversations with adults. They are often more comfortable when sitting parallel, just like what happens in the car. If your child tends to open up more in the car, take them with you for an errand, put your phones away, and let them fill the silence. Car rides are great times to ask open ended questions.
If you are really struggling to maintain a positive relationship with your teen, don't be afraid to reach out for help!