It’s painful and frustrating when your shutdown teen won’t open up and communicate with you.
You’re desperate to know what’s on your teen’s mind, but all you’re getting is one-word answers and shoulder shrugs. What gives?
More common that you’d think (or like) pre-teens and teens tend to shut down when it comes to talking with their parents. Your teen may be worried about:
- your judgement or criticism
- you not understanding
- burdening you with her problems
- getting in trouble
For these reasons, your teen is more likely to talk to her peers than you.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, it shouldn’t.
You need to be able to have healthy conversations with your teen. And although it may be easier to give up or get mad, don’t. There’s a lot at risk when your teen doesn’t come to you for guidance.
Keep reading below for the 10 steps you can take today to get your teen to open up and get your communication back on track.
1. Start daily check-ins
Easier said than done, right? You would be surprised by how little time it takes to connect with your teen if you make it a daily routine. You don’t need to book off an hour, either. Start with 3-5 minutes. Ideally, making it the same time everyday can help get you and your child into a routine of talking and listening to each other.
Do you drive her to school or pick her up? Perfect time. What about eating breakfast or dinner together? That’s a great time to connect with her. Even just passing by her bedroom door for a few minutes at bedtime, or offering to take her on a walk around the block each evening can be a great opportunity to spend some quality time.
2. Eliminate distractions
Phones, TV, and social media need to be off. Show your child she’s important by unplugging. Encourage her to do so too. If she has a phone, have her put it in a drawer a few feet away, and put it on silent. I’ve seen many teens distracted by the vibrate alert in their pocket, and your child may be pulled to end her conversation with you because she wants to know what’s happening on her phone.
If she has younger siblings, find a way to redirect them to another activity so they don’t barge in and become intrusive. Better yet, create some distraction free time for them too. This will help them to understand how important this time is.
3. Show interest in what your teen likes
When you and your child start talking, you may feel the urge to finish the argument that started in the car on the way home from school, or take the opportunity to circle back to that “C” she got in science. If you do that, however, you risk your teen shutting down even more.
You know what your child is interested in: the latest photo on Facebook, the new kid in the class, or her favorite Monday night show. Those are perfect openers! Talk about them! You will be surprised about how much you learn about your child by discussing what interests her.
When you have a successful conversation about what interests her, you’re building a foundation of positive rapport that both of you can reflect on when you have to have those tougher conversations. And the best part is it’s reciprocal. Showing your child you care about what she cares about helps her to care about what you care about. The end result will be your child thinking “I can go to my mom about anything because she cares.”
4. Say “Tell me more.”
Does your teen ever say something and you just don’t know what to say back? Here’s a magic phrase to use: “tell me more.” These three words show your child you’re invested in the conversation and that you care about what she’s saying. Plus, it doesn’t leave you in the position of scrambling for what to say. At this point, you are providing an open, safe space for her to speak.
5. Avoid “why” questions
The word “why” puts your kid on the defense. Even when done gently, it carries the tone of “defend your decision to me.” Your goal is to get your kid to open up, not shut down.
When you remove “why?” you are communicating to your child that you ready to listen without judgement. Try:“I’m trying to understand. Can you explain more?” It accomplishes the same goal as “why” but without that harsh sounding word that signals to your child she should get upset or stop talking altogether.
6. Switch out the word “but”
Nothing halts a conversation faster than the “but” word. Everything you say after “but” will get ignored because your teen is preparing her retort back. So if you say “I know you want to go the mall, but you haven’t done your homework.” Your child has just stopped listening to you, and now she’s ready to argue back.
Try finding a way to put “and” in the sentence. “I know you want to go to the mall and I want to help you with that goal. Let’s come up with a plan to finish the homework, so we have time to go to the mall.” Then help her with the plan so that it ends up a win-win for the both of you.
When we get rid of “but” (which signals to your child “no”), then you are working toward a “yes.” And when your child knows you are working with her toward a solution, she will be more willing to open up and talk.
7. Reflect back what your teen says
Say your teen says “I want a new phone because the screen cracked and I can’t see my Instagram account and you’re being ridiculous because you won’t give me a new one.” Now I know you want to argue back because you have your reasons for not giving her a new phone, PLUS she just called you ridiculous.
Instead, pause, take a deep breath, and use reflective listening.This tool helps you to side step an argument and stay focused on solving the problem at hand.
Using reflective listening you might say “You’re upset because you can’t see the texts on your screen and your mad because you feel like I’m keeping your friends from you.”
When you use reflective listening you are validating your teen’s feelings so she can say to herself “Yes, my mom gets me!” She will still be mad at you, but now she’s engaging with you rather than stalking off when you argue back at her.
8. Hold off on giving advice
Pre-teens and teens are notorious for thinking that what their parents say is ridiculous, even if it is the best advice. To make advice-giving that much more effective your teen needs to first hear that you understand her and that you understand the problem.
Have you ever sat down with a friend, poured your heart out, and then your friend starts in with saying “You know what you should do….” or “Why don’t you just…” or “If you had listened to me last time…”. It wasn’t exactly helpful was it? Did it make you feel like you wanted to talk more about it, or just steer the conversation in another direction?
What did you need to hear instead? I bet it’s more along the lines of “That’s rough, it sounds like that situation really bothered you.” That would just open up the floodgates for you even more, wouldn’t it? That’s the experience you want with your child.
Give advice only when your teen specifically invites you to give it. Listen for phrases like “So what do you think about…?” or “What should I do about….?”
If she says “I just don’t know what to do” ask before you give advice. My favorite line is: “I have some ideas, would you like to hear them?” If she says no, that’s OK. Be patient, and just stay with empathizing with her. This will help your teen to open up and ask for help when she’s ready.
9. Listen, don’t lecture
Make sure you put periods at the end of your sentences! That means take some time to pause and listen to your child. No one likes a lecture.
I know you’ve been trained for the last decade or so to guide, teach, and advise your child. However, if your child has shut down, speaking at length is not going to get her to open up. Your words are like an air bubble that’s taking up the whole room. There’s no space for your child to talk! So you have to create the space.
10. Let her know you’re always available
So you’ve tried all this and your kid is still shut down and giving you one-word answers. That’s incredibly frustrating and common.
It takes time to override the communication block, especially if you two have had a pattern of frustrating, ineffective communication. If this happens, though, now is not the time to revert back to your old strategies of prodding, poking, lecturing, and then getting frustrated with your child.
“When you’re ready I’m here to listen” is a respectful, non-pushy statement that invites your child to come back to the conversation when it’s comfortable for her. Ultimately, you’re conveying to your child “You’re words are important. I understand you don’t feel like talking right now. That’s OK. I’ll be here for you when you are ready.”
Bottom line: Getting your teen to open up to you is a process, and it takes more than one conversation to get back on track. At a time when your frustration is the highest, your child needs you to be the most patient. Hang in there, because there’s nothing more important than having solid, open, communication with your teen.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.