Recently I had a really great conversation with parents at a PTO meeting. We talked about signs of stress and anxiety in teens and how parents can help. During our conversation, some parents expressed that their teens don’t share with them when they are upset or stressed, often just giving them one-word answers when asked how their day was. So how can you help your teen when they don’t share openly about their feelings?
Consider the setting and timing: The setting and timing can have a lot to do with your teen’s comfort level opening up. When they come home from school and they are tired from their day, they may not want to share openly about their school day and how they feel really worried about their math grade. Catching your teen at times when they can share more organically, without the pressure of direct eye contact can be helpful. Driving in the car can be a great location for a conversation, when you and your teen are both focused on the road and at times may have the dark of night to create a more safe space. Going for a walk or walking the family dog with your teen can provide another setting to open up conversation. Exercise releases natural endorphins in the brain so your teen may be feeling more positive and likely to talk. Again, the conversation can feel safer and more natural as you walk and talk without constant direct eye contact. Playing a card game or a board game together is another option. This is a strategy many therapists use with teen clients to help build rapport and spark more natural conversation as teens adjust to a counseling setting. Another setting is bedtime, tucked into their beds, away from the stress of the world. Although you may be focused on getting your teen to sleep, knowing how crucial sleep is to their health, the quiet of the night can trigger time to think and process with you.
Ask open-ended questions: When asking questions, remember that closed questions, such as “Did you like school today?” with answers such as yes/no, can be limiting. Open-ended questions, such as “What was the best part of your day?” challenge your teen to think about their day and give an answer with more detail. It also provides an opportunity for follow up questions as your teen responds.
Normalize tough emotions: This was a great reminder from one of the parents in the group that highlighted how sharing stories about your own struggles experienced that day can help to normalize tough emotions, especially if you suspect your teen may be struggling with something. For example, you may share that you felt stressed at work when you were trying to tackle a large to-do list. This can normalize that even adults feel stress or negative emotions. It can also provide you an opportunity to share how you manage tough emotions to cope.
Take a non-judgmental stance: If your teen finally opens up and they are met with anger, fear, or judgment, this can quickly shut them down and send a message that they can’t talk to you. It can be challenging to control your immediate response, but coming from a place of love and asking follow up questions to gain a better understanding of what your teen is sharing can keep you in the loop rather than getting shut out. You are entitled to your feelings, so take the time to breath and process when the conversation has ended, thinking about what next steps should be rather than being reactive or harsh in the moment.
The moral of the story - if your teen wants to talk, take the time to listen, even if it is a time that does not feel convenient. Let them know you are interested and supportive and if you really can’t talk at that time, give them a specific time that you will circle back to the conversation. Being a teen is tough, and being a parent to a teen can be even more difficult between the worry and guessing game as to how your teen is doing. So be creative when finding a time and space that feels comfortable for your teen to talk. Try to be open and as non-judgmental as possible, letting your teen know you will do your best to understand and help them find solutions to their struggles. And finally, pat yourself on the back for the hard work and dedication it takes to be a parent!