Get Your Teen Talking

By Alaina Chatterly

The words that come out of your teen’s mouth are far more powerful than the words that go into their ears. For one thing, words coming out of their mouth are also heard by their ears. So anything you can get them to realize and say aloud will stick with them twice as long (or more) than something you have simply told them is important.

What do I mean by this vague statement? Well, we have so much to say to these teens. Time is limited with them, and we have wisdom and advice and dos/don’ts that we try to cram in to them in any alert moment. As a therapist working with teens, I am surprised at how much they have to say and lots of things they have to say are exactly the sorts of things their parents are saying. These teens can list their greatest weaknesses, when the oppositional “I told you so” dynamic is removed. These teens can list exactly what their parents want from them, exactly what their mom would be picking on if she were sitting in session with us right then, and they can usually even state why their parents think certain things are important for them. Point being – they get it. Our lecturing has reached their brains, at least as they can regurgitate information back to us.

Due to new brain development, these teens are coming in to a world of abstract thought and personal insight. They are ready to explore their world and their place in it through deep and meaningful conversations. Yet we keep talking at them. With the best of intentions, we are intent on teaching them, which often looks like lecturing them, and it often shuts up the dam of their greatness ready to pour forth.

When I find myself dominating the conversation in therapy, I’ll consciously stop and say, “I’m talking an awful lot. What do you think about this?” It’s a way to re-engage them and check in to see what they are getting from the conversation/lecture. It points out they are important to me, and often they surprise me with deep thoughts of their own. Sometimes they even pick up the conversation thread and teach me the very thing I was intent on teaching them. These insights of theirs are powerful and lasting, straight from their own mouth into their own ears.

How can you start this sort of exploration with your teen? First, get them talking. They should be doing their fair share – 50 percent in conversations you have together. You try to talk less, and really listen to them. Even if you don’t agree, listen to what’s important and try to understand. They will hopefully return the favor. Second, ask exploratory, open-ended questions that usually start with the words “how” or “why.” “How did you feel when your teacher pulled rank like that?” “Why is this important to you?” “How do you see that turning out for you?” “Why do you think you reacted like that?” “Why is Janie such a good match for you?” “Tell me the sorts of feelings you had when he said that.” Your teen might start to really shine with this attention, will grow in his/her own insights and build a better relationship as they discuss with you instead of feel lectured at.

Most of us are naturally oppositional; nobody likes being told what to do. This is not a trait unique to teens. If you build a relationship with more conversations and less lectures, more open questions and more listening, and if you share your perspectives and values without forcing them upon your teen, you might be surprised at what they pick up and how things important to you will become important to them. There’s something powerful about discovering values through meaningful conversation and exploration where you haven’t been “told” what to think or believe. So get your teen talking, nurture their exploration and enjoy the ride together.