You may have asked yourself this question if you have ever tried to have a deep, emotional and meaningful conversation with your teenage son. Especially if the conversation is your idea and is on a topic that he is not super interested in, like chores, homework or being a contributing member of the family. Now, don’t get me wrong teenage boys can be philosophical, sensitive and profoundly wise at times. However, this is often not their default setting when talking to parents or authority figures.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why talking to your teenage son can feel like trying to break into a high security bank vault.
- He wants desperately to avoid thinking about his feelings, much less actually feeling them
- He is worried about telling you too much and fearful that he will get a lecture or in some serious trouble
- He doesn’t have the emotional capacity or interest required to carry on long, intense conversations
- He also wants to avoid you reminding him about the ten things he is supposed to be doing right now instead of playing video games
- He experiences your questions as nosy or intrusive, even when you are trying so hard to be genuinely interested
- He is afraid you are going to overreact if he tells you the truth about what is going on with his girlfriend
- He doesn’t really know what he is feeling and can’t come up with the words to express it, so he doesn’t even try
- He is distracted and wants to get back to watching Tobuscus on YouTube and playing Call of Duty Ghosts
- He has trained himself in being skilled at tuning out your words and is really only hearing maybe 10% of what you say
- He feels uncomfortable talking to you about sex, smoking pot or any number of other things that are occupying his mind
- He has a number of things he is currently trying to hide from you and is trying to keep conversation with you to a minimum
- He just doesn’t think you could possibly understand what he is going through
I’m sure you could add your own theories and experiences to this short list. The plain truth is that much of the time you just don’t know what is going on between his ears. It is hard to know how much to talk, how much to listen, how much to push and when to just back off. So, how do you apply the best of your parenting, negotiating and interviewing skills to get him to open up and share just a bit more.
I think it is a combination of three things.
- Right timing
- Right questions
- Right responses
Right timing may be while you are driving in the car, late at night before bed, after he breaks up with his girlfriend or while eating tacos. Pay attention to the times when he is most relaxed, unguarded and open. Look at his body language and non-verbal signals to know when to proceed or wait for a more ideal moment.
I often play games with teens in my office in order to create a situation where I can casually bring up topics and further important conversations. Try finding a video game or board game that you can play together. It may take some time to discern the right timing, but it is a key strategic way to create opportunities for better communication.
Asking the right questions is vitally important and can either fuel or douse the flames of any interaction. Try to avoid questions that result in a one word answer because that is exactly what you will get, i.e. How was your day? Fine. It can be super helpful to work on asking open-ended questions versus closed-ended questions. An open-ended question will compel him to volunteer more information, i.e. What was the best/worst part of your day today? It is harder than you may think to ask only open-ended questions. Try it today with your spouse, a co-worker or a friend and see how well you do.
If your questions don’t evoke a response, try rewording or changing the question. Try sharing your best/worst moments of the day and then toss the question over to him.
Even if you choose the right timing and ask the most beautifully open-ended questions you can quickly close the window of opportunity with a wrong response. This could be quickly giving advice, getting overly emotional, responding with shock or obvious disgust or simply not listening (see my post on 5 Ways To Fail When Talking To Your Teenage Son).
I often have teenage boys disclose troubling things in my therapy office, thinking about doing cocaine, getting a girlfriend pregnant, self-mutilation and suicide to mention a few. I work very hard at withholding judgement in the moment and paying attention to my facial expressions and my words. I also want to communicate to them that I can handle this information, they can trust me and I am in no way going to reject them. Of course, this is easier for me because these are not my kids (although I often think of them and treat them as if they were).
Trust me when I tell you that you will earn some serious equity when you pay attention to having right responses when your son talks to you.
For more support and strategies check out my parenting resource.
Talking To Your Teenage Son Without Losing Your Mind