Getting Your Teens To Talk:

Tips For Parents

By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.

Every parent of teens knows how difficult it is to get them to talk. If they’re not in the mood, and you ask how their day was, the likely answer is a monosyllabic “Fine.” It doesn’t have to be that way. There are many things parents can do to get their teen to talk. Here’s what the experts suggest:

Conversation Starters for Talking with Your Teen or Tween

"How was your day?" "Good." "What did you do at school today?" "Nothing."

Sound familiar?

Consider using more specific or creative questions to get beyond those one-word responses. Here are 25 questions to help elicit more information from your child and inspire some great conversations.

• What is one thing you learned today?
• What do you wish you could learn at school?
• If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you travel to?
• What is your dream job?
• If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
• Which class do you think would be the most fun to teach?
• What made you laugh today?
• What was your favorite book when you were little?
• What is your earliest memory?
• What are two things on your bucket list?
• What is something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?
• What is your proudest moment?
• What is your most embarrassing moment?
• What is your favorite family tradition?
• What was the most challenging part of your day?
• Do you feel ready for middle school or high school? Why or why not?
• What do you think will be the best thing about getting older?
• Describe yourself in three words.
• What three words would you use to describe me?
• If you could be any animal, what would you be?
• If you could meet anyone, dead or alive, who would you meet?
• Would you rather live on the beach or in the mountains?
• If you could star in any movie, what movie would it be?

Ask Open-Ended Questions
Ask questions where a simple yes or no response won’t cut it. “By asking questions that can’t be answered with only a yes or no, says Sue Scheff, founder and president of Parents’ Universal Resource Experts, a teen advocacy organization, “you’re opening the door for your teenager to say more than a couple of words in reply to you.” Instead of asking your teen how their day was, Scheff suggests saying “tell me about your day.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Terry Orbuch adds that if you want specific information from your teen, ask personal and fun questions that trigger deeper conversation. For example, you could ask questions like “what was an interesting thing that happened at school today?” and “why do you think your friend wanted to talk to you?” (See sidebar for more ideas on conversation starters.)

Respect Their Privacy
Whatever your teen chooses to share with you, assure them that you’ll respect their privacy and not share the content of your conversation with others. “To earn our kids’ confidence, says Joanna Teigen, the author of Growing Home Together, a well-known parenting blog, “we’ve got to respect their privacy and keep our promises. Consistently handling their ideas, emotions, and stories with care goes a long way to keeping communication open.”

Listen Well
Listen to your teens, and listen well. “Listen, listen and continue to listen without interrupting,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg. “Once you interrupt, your teens are likely to shut down. Just let them talk and vent, and they’ll be so appreciative.” A great way to show that you’re listening, says clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham, author of Positive Parent and many other parenting books, is to “backchannel your teen’s words occasionally – not repeating everything they say, of course, but repeating some key phrases here and there, with a questioning intonation to make sure you’ve got it right.”

Look At The World From Their Perspective
Another strategy to get your teens to talk is to make an effort to look at the world from their perspective. “Teenagers think that their parents and caregivers don’t understand them,” says Scheff. To counteract that, “really try to imagine how you’d feel if you were in her shoes going through what she’s going through.” If your teens are sharing something that’s making them angry or sad, show that you understand what it’s like.

Offer Advice Sparingly
If you feel the need to offer advice (an irrepressible parental urge), be careful about blurting out what you think they should do. Instead, ask your teen what options they’re considering. “This’ll give you an idea of where her head is,” says Scheff. Clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Reese agrees that parents should only give advice sparingly. “More than likely, if your teen’s disclosing to you, they already know what they should do. Heavy-handed advice will only make them less likely to disclose in the future.”

Talk About Yourself
A final piece of advice is to talk about yourself, or as Joe White, the author of Sticking with Your Teen, says “model what you want your teen to do.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy Darling agrees. If you want your teen to talk about their day, talk first about your day: “things you enjoyed, something funny that happened at lunch, a movie you loved, a great meme you thought was funny on Facebook. And while you’re still laughing, ask them about their favorite YouTube video.”