How to get your teenager to open up and talk to you

I imagine every parent fears the day their teenager stops talking.
Your precious chatterbox goes from talking your ear off each day to barely muttering an "I'm fine" before they shut the bedroom door. Even if you force him to associate with the family, he spends the whole time texting his friends or perusing Facebook. But conversing with the parentals? You must be "cra-cra."

When I work with families in counseling sessions, communication is usually strained between teenagers and parents. It is common for my teenage counseling clients to refuse to even speak to their parents. Usually, by the time the family enter counseling, the parents are so fed up with their non-communicative kid that they appear trapped in a cycle of nagging. Their coercion attempts to get any type of conversation out of their child have failed. Stress is high and parents expect me to magically "fix" their teen back into the sweet, talkative 10 year old they remember. 

However the biggest predictor of success in counseling a family, 
in my opinion, is the parents' willingness to change their own unhelpful habits.
Children tend to follow their parents' footsteps, so if the adults are willing to make positive changes then the children will usually follow.

Here's an example about how communication can be strained between a teenager and parents:

Recently I worked with a teenage girl who had important news to tell her parents, but she was afraid of their reaction. She assumed her parents would blame her for actions beyond her control, so she confided only in adults at the school. (Unfortunately the school officials were too busy to help.) 
Her parents knew something was amiss. They begged her to confide her pain in them, but she was steadfast in her opposition to talk. It took an entire session for her to finally open up to her mother about the sexual harassment she was experiencing at school. My teenage client was shocked that Mom was "on her team." Afterwards she expressed feeling relieved she had told her Mom about her troubles, but again said she was surprised Mom was willing to help.

Do your children know they can trust you to help them, protect them, and seek for their happiness?

Despite their protests to the contrary, teenagers do want to talk to their parents.
Below are three tips for parents, which if followed, will encourage a teenage child to open up and talk.

1. Show them you have time for them.

Remember I said it took an entire session for my teenage client to open up to her mother? Even then, she opened up just a little bit at a time. Initially, after a few minutes of silence, her Mom appeared ready to give up and forget the conversation, but I continued to encourage my teenage client to open up. I reassured her she could share the information as slowly as she desired, and I suggested options to make the conversation easier. I suggested she could write down bullet points of what she needed to say, or draw the conversation, or make a list. Eventually she started talking, and then Mom showed she was listening.

If you know your teenager has something important to tell you, don't expect them to drop the news over a quick text message or on the way to school. Your child is probably analyzing emotions, imagining consequences, and brainstorming how the news will impact his social life. With those thoughts swirling in his head, it will take time to know how to communicate with you.
Schedule alone time to talk with your teenager. Turn off electronics. Account for hunger, homework, or sleep deprivation. Then be willing to sit, reassuringly, until he is done talking.

Sunset Couple

2. Shut up and listen.

Parents have life experience and wisdom. But if your teenager does decide to open and talk about her problems, odds are she doesn't want to listen to how you overcame your problems in the past. Teenagers go through a phase of ego-centrism, which means they believe the world revolves around them. Obviously this is an immature, unrealistic perception, but it is part of human development. So, don't waste the precious time your teenager is willing to give you by dwelling on your memory lane. Stop talking about you, and listen to her.

Seek to understand her story. Listen to her endless lists of "Sally texted this, and then James texted that" and try to make sense of her pain. Show her that she is the most interesting person in the world at that moment, and she'll probably keep talking to you. Everyone appreciates a good listening ear.
Teenagers tend to open up in counseling because I focus all my attention on understanding them. I listen. I give them all my focus for that one hour session, and it builds trust. I don't cut them off; I don't start talking about me. When I do talk, I keep the focus on understanding their thoughts, behaviors, or feelings.

As parents, listen attentively when your teenager talks. Put down the dishes, turn off the TV, look away from Instagram, and really focus on your child. Listen with an intent to understand, and they'll probably keep talking.

Friends Sitting in Chairs

3. Help them solve their problem; don't just offer absolute advice.

Imagine this scenario:
"But I was so mad because Kristen posted that picture on Facebook, and Brian commented that Alice looked hot, and she knows that I like him, so how could she do that? And Alice has a boyfriend anyways, so why is she flirting with Brian? Maybe I should tell Peter that Kristen and Alice are fakers, and then he can tell Brian that I'm the only normal one in that class. But what if Peter thinks I like him over Brian? Then I'd have to go to the dance with him, but I wouldn't want to because he dresses so weird, but maybe that would make Brian jealous. What should I do?"

So how do you respond?
Most parents take a simple approach and tell their teenager what to do rationally. But simply telling your daughter in this scenario, "Sounds like you need new friends. How about you play with the kids down the street?" doesn't solve the problems she was venting about. Her complicated story reflects her complicated emotions about the problem.

Instead, ask questions to further understand her feelings and assess her decision making capabilities.

"What signs has Brian given you that show he might be interested in you?"
"What other motivations might Kristen have had in posting that picture?"
"Was she intentionally trying to hurt you or was this a misunderstanding?"
"I wonder what would happen if you told Peter that Alice was cheating, but she really wasn't."
"How would that affect your friendship with Alice?"

Asking your teenager questions shows her you are interested and that you are listening (See Steps 1 and 2 above.) As you guide your teenager through an appropriate decision making process, you are also help her develop life skills. Instead of learning to react defensively to life events, you are helping her learn wisdom and perspective.
What a positive lesson to teach your teenage children!

Soon your teenager will grow into an adult, so help them learn to make rational, adult decisions. Remember that his brain is still somewhat immature and his adolescent ego-centrism seems short-sighted; but keep trying to communicate. 

So there are three ways you can encourage your teenagers to open up and talk to you.
I hope you allow yourself the time to make these patterns a positive habit in your life.

What tips would you give to parents of teenagers? How do you keep the lines of communication open in your home?