Tired of One-Word Responses from Your Teen? Ditch the Questions and Become Interesting Enough That They Want to Talk With You

Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette

Every day at 3 pm thousands upon thousands of kids and teenagers are being clobbered by questions about their day at school from the people who love them the most—their parents. And despite the fact that most of these parents would be satisfied with just a little bit of feedback, a brief commentary—even just a full sentence would do—their kids hold them off with the same old abbreviated response: “Fine.” Or “Good.” Maybe they get an “It was okay.”

Why do they do this? After all their parents do for them, why can’t they just answer the question??

Well, they could, but they don’t—and it’s not because they’re being defiant or difficult or any of those things that parents accuse their adolescents of being. They don’t answer because it’s not an inviting question. It’s predictable and boring and it, once again, asks teens to recite their day rather than to engage in a real conversation. Translated, “How was school?” means, I want you to talk to me but don’t know how to get you to do that without asking a question and school just happens to be the most convenient topic. So I ask about school even though I know you can’t stand when I do.

Huh? Why persist with something that you know your kid can’t stand, and expect that you’re going to get a positive response?

Parents ask me how they can get their teenagers to talk with them, and I tell them they’re asking  me the wrong question. I think a better question is, How can I become a compelling and relevant enough figure to my teenager that he or she actually wants to talk with me?

Now we’re talking.

If we want our teenagers to talk with us, we need to change the way we talk to them. We need to be engaging them in conversation the way we do with anyone else—by mentioning something interesting we saw or heard about, or telling a little story, or expressing a funny opinion, or anything but a question about school.  Let them see you as someone more than “just” their mother or father. Tell them about times you’ve been overwhelmed or lost your confidence or desperately wanted something you couldn’t be sure you’d ever get—experiences they can relate to, that make you human and accessible. Share with them funny habits that you keep hidden from view.  Tell them what moves you in this world, or where you still experience wonder and awe. Don’t tell them things just to get them talking. Tell them things so they become interested enough in you as a person to want you to know them too.

We don’t begin talking with our adult friends or family members by asking the same question each day. Why do we approach our own kids so differently?

I think part of the reason is that talking to teenagers can make adults uncomfortable. They get a little anxious because they know they cannot make a conversation happen without the cooperation of the teen. So when left standing there, in front of your kid’s blank stare that says, I so don’t want to be doing this, you can end up feeling silly, or helpless, or a little lost. And because teens understand perfectly well that adults typically want the conversation more than they themselves do, they know that they can control how it goes. That’s your Principle of Least Interest at work there, sociologist Willard Waller’s term for the idea that the person who, in any particular moment, has the least amount of interest in the matter at hand (having a conversation, avoiding a conflict, doing the dishes) has the most power.

One way to get around all this is to try talking with your teen more genuinely rather than trying harder. What if you said, “I want so badly to hear about your day that I keep asking that same dumb question about school even though I know you hate it. I just don’t know how else to start a conversation with you, and I want to. Can you help me out here?” Your son or daughter may look at you funny, and may not know exactly what to say, but I bet he or she will understand what you’re trying to do, and respect your candor in talking about it. And then you can follow it up with,Well, think about it. I miss when we talked to each other without feeling so darn self-conscious about it.”

One day a girl I’ll call Katie and her mom came together for therapy. I listened as Katie’s mom described how moved she had been by the kindness of strangers toward an elderly couple she saw that afternoon having trouble navigating a touchpad screen for ordering food.  “It took a little while before the couple got it but the people helping them were so patient, and the look on their faces was, like, they were happy to have been the ones there to help! It made me realize how little we have to do to make someone else’s life easier, and also a little sad that we don’t do it more often.” Touched, and a little bit disarmed at her mother’s candor, Katie looked her mom and said, “I never knew you thought about stuff like that.” Staring down at her hands, Katie’s mom responded by nodding vigorously. Then she looked up at us both and smiled. “Yeah, you know it’s nice,” she replied. “It’s nice, your kids seeing you as more than this person who drives them places and threatens to take their cell phone away.”

If we want the current dialogue between our teens and ourselves to change, then we may need to lead the way toward something different. We may need to be willing to say, “I’ll go first,” and then to do it.

— Janet Sasson Edgette

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