Talking with teens

by North of Boston

Totebaggers, what strategies have been helpful — or not — in getting your kids to talk to you in a meaningful way?

When Teenagers Bristle at ‘How Was School?’

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55 thoughts on “Talking with teens

  1. They might be living in a different time zone even though you’re living same house. Their body clocks really are different, and they might be ready to share about their day, or a problem just when you’re ready to sleep, or make dinner etc. One tip I have is to try to listen when they want to talk even if you’re tired, or busy because you might not get another chance that day.

  2. I find that my kids are ready to talk about their day immediately when they get home. I don’t even have to ask them a question–they voluntarily share the info.

    If I work late and try and catch up with them later, they don’t want to talk and give me very short answers. At that point, they are immersed in homework and activities so talking to me is much more of an intrusion.

  3. I agree that you need to let them start the conversation. I’ve found that the kids will talk when they are ready – sometimes it’s right after school, other times it’s later in the evening. DW asks a lot of questions to try to get them to talk and it just annoys them.

  4. DD who is 16 has never been much of a talker. I have to ask random questions. In 4th or 5th grade, I picked her up from elementary school and randomly asked if there had been a school assembly. Yes. Then I asked if she had gotten an award. Why it turns out yes, she had. Would she ever have told us? Hard to say.

    Yesterday DH went to DD’s soccer game only to find out she wasn’t playing because she’d rolled her ankle the day before. Did she think to share that info with us? No.

    DS on the other hand is a fount of information. Although I’m sure this will change as he gets older (he’s 11 and still pretty chatty). I do try to ask more specific questions like “what did you do at recess?” or “who did you sit with at lunch?” rather than “how was your day?”

    I always liked the idea of each person sharing happies and sads of the day at dinner – but no one else in the family liked this.

  5. Agree they talk when, where and about what they want on their own odd schedule. DD#1 has become a bit more open while DD#2 now a freshman is closing down. If you aren’t there at the designated download time, you just miss it.

  6. We stopped carpooling this year as we finally got to the point where everyone had such different schedules, it didn’t make any sense any more. Interestingly, my kids are entirely different creatures in the car now in the afternoons. They are SO CHATTY. They talk the entire way to and from school. I had no idea that having other kids in the car was suppressing conversation so much. It totally makes up for the extra time I spend driving – worth every minute.

    Sometimes mine will ride their bike alongside DH when he runs, and he tells me they’re pretty talkative then.

  7. Regular posters had mentioned talking to kids in the car. I found this to be true. Lots of information is shared when I am driving my kids around. The short drop off to school is the best time for me to tell them anything. Conversely, went they come home, often times they want to vent about this or that, so I try to listen and not interrupt with questions.

  8. Totally agree that carpooling changes the atmosphere and kids clam up. However, if you clam up as well, they often forget you are there and you can find out a LOT by eavesdropping on their conversations with the other kids.

    I did not mind doing the school pickup because the ride home was when they wanted to talk, and we rarely had other kids along so didn’t have the clam issue. By the time DH came home, they had moved on and so he missed out on the fresh brain dump. With some leading questions at dinner, they would sometimes provide a recap.

  9. This is not an issue I currently have; my DD talks non-stop for a solid hour every day after school. And that’s like 120 minutes worth of Regular People chatter, since she talks as fast as an auctioneer.

    It hasn’t always been this way, though. Partly, she’s changed/grown up, but mostly, in the past 5 years or so, I’ve completely altered the way I talk to my kids. I think if I were still using my former teen talking skills (or the lack thereof) with DD, she’d have about 5 minutes of things to say to me.

    I used to spend too much time advising/correcting/opining/reminding — which all, to a kid, means JUDGING — and not enough time just *listening.* I used to not be able to stand hearing some instance of bad behavior on my kids’ part without letting them know right then that I didn’t condone it, and expected better. Or I’d comment on how badly their friend behaved, and say I was glad mine weren’t like that. I saw every discussion with them as an opportunity for me to teach them.

    Big mistake. What kid wants to open up to a parent if they’re guaranteed to be judged, or have their friends judged, every time?

    I have learned to take my own agenda completely out of discussions with the kids, with the single exception being talks that start with a kid asking me for advice. If they’re only downloading and haven’t asked for my opinion, I keep it to myself. Downloads are given a completely judgment-free zone. Always.

    If there are things they tell me that I bristle at–maybe it sounds like my DD started the argument, or broke a rule, or whatever–I’ll make a mental note to discuss it with them later, but I won’t discuss it during the download.

    I must add that biting my tongue isn’t at all difficult anymore. And my “I’m on your side” responses aren’t fake. At the time of a kid’s download, I really do feel that my only desire is to hear how they feel, to support them, and to give them a safe, judgment free space to vent. Teachable moments can come later — and I expect my knowing that likely helps me refrain from teaching in that moment.

  10. We don’t seem to have this problem. DS1 loves nothing more than to talk about himself, and is very open in general. The biggest problem with him is that he can be a bit of a drama queen (king?) sometimes. DS2 also loves to talk, and with him, a nice session of chopping veggies works quite well to get a chat going. My DD is the most closed of the bunch, and I think there are some things lurking under her self-controlled self. But she will open up at the most suprising times, so I just have to be ready to talk when she wants to. She also can be a drama queen but I never feel that her heart is in it. It seems like she does it for show.

  11. When DS1 was having his toughest time in school, during 8th and 9th grade, before he got a therapist and 504 plan, he did really clam up. That is when I knew things were seriously wrong

  12. On a different topic, DS1 had his appt for his med check with the developmental ped cancelled out from under him. When I called to reschedule, I was told that the doctor is booked through December, and no, I can’t make an appt for January because they haven’t opened January yet. In the meantime, I have to just wait for a cancellation, and no matter how inconvenient it is, take that slot. It could happen any time between now and January. This is one of the very few ADHD doctors in the area that takes insurance. And they say wait times are bad in Canada????

  13. My son generally hangs out in his room alone afternoons and evenings. I pop in several times a day, bringing him a glass of water or a piece of fruit, dropping off laundry, or carrying my coffee or water, and test the waters. There are usually 1 or 2 times a day that he wants me to stay for a short while and tell me something or just laugh and joke. Then he tells me it’s time to go. I think that the power to tell me to leave (and see me comply) is important to him. After school he says he’s too tired to talk. He is required to greet me politely then, sometimes answers a couple questions briefly, and then disappears behind his door. Sometimes he doesn’t want to say anything. That’s fine too as long as he says so politely after saying hi.

    Commute times can be magic, or he may hide behind his headphones. Starting in second grade, he didn’t want to talk in the mornings (we always had before) because he was busy gearing up for school and getting his game face on. He is loving high school. I drove him this morning and we joked around in “fancy” voices. I’m so happy to see him happy.

    Bedtimes used to take forever, because as his mind got still,he could hear his school worries more & more. These days we can talk and laugh for over an hour at bedtime if we aren’t careful. Last night he told me he’d gotten his first grade in his new writing class. They were supposed to write a persuasive essay backed up by facts. He wrote that water should be outlawed, because (number from Google) people drown in it every year, just an inch of it can kill babies, every serial killer drinks it, etc. I was holding my breath, expecting he’d been disciplined. His grade was 100%! I think I like this teacher. I don’t think that would have come up if we hadn’t been chatting and laughing. Even without info nuggets like that, I think the laughter is really valuable because it breaks down barriers within and between us, and lets emotions flow.

    There is a lot I don’t know. That’s probably how it will be from now on. He told me he has a crush on a girl in lit class, but not her name or what she looks like. I never know about homework unless something happens like this morning–printer wouldn’t connect to wifi & he had homework to print out. So I focus on keeping our connection strong & watch out for signs of things I should ask more about, either with him or at school.

  14. Mooshi – that’s terrible! It’s such a learning-related issue, and to have an entire semester go by until your DS can see the doc seems … very Canadian!

  15. Mooshi,

    That is terrible. You and your husband have good jobs, is it possible just to pay privately and go see someone who doesn’t take insurance? An entire semester is a very long time.

  16. MM – I’m sorry to hear that. We sucked it up and paid full price when DD#2 need her first evaluation. Otherwise it was a wait of 6-8 months. Hoping for a quick and convenient cancellation!

  17. In the morning, I’ll still be in bed, and DS crawls up next to me, putting his head on the pillow and smiling (usually followed by “hi!”). Then he sits up and babbles whatever is on his little mind. Some mornings he won’t. shut. up. It’s like he’s saved everything he forgot to say from the day before. When he breaks for a breath, I try to ask for more information (like I understood what he said).

    I think DS may be one of those kids who gets involved with whatever he’s doing and then forgets to talk. He can be silent for a long time just playing or interacting with us. Then he remembers his voice and lets us all know he’s there. Now that he’s gotten more non-verbal and verbal communication down, it’s interesting to see when, if, and how he uses these skills.

  18. MM, will they refill his Rx until then? Can you explain a little more about the differences in drama queening? I thought it was always for show. What motivates it otherwise, and how can you tell the difference?

    Risley, you sound like one of the pros at the “parenting solutions” place I’m always talking about! I agree with you that just listening and showing we support them, even if we don’t support the behavior, is key. When it’s hard for me to bite my tongue, I often ask if he wants to hear what I think. If he says no, I think it’s really important to respect that, but I allow myself a “let me know later if you’re ready to hear what I think about it then”. That helps me keep my mouth shut. If he says yes, or even asks for advice, I try to keep it super-short & often start by saying how many points I have. I’ve always been a “natural consequences” parent, and I try to keep that mindset with some of the things he tells me. He seems to be fine with extremely short interjections, like saying “ouch!” if I think he was rude, or catastrophizing an exaggerated, funny way. That often works much better than going on and on about what he did wrong, why it’s wrong, what would be better, blah blah blah.

  19. Originally he did see someone who didn’t take insurance, but it got really expensive since the guy (a well known expert in our area) insisted that we have monthly appointments – a 1 hour drive which cost $300 each time, for 15 minutes of chitchat. DS1 doesn’t need an evaluation – he just needs his once every 3 months med check. The problem is that he is due for the med check in early October, and he HAD an appointment, but now we don’t know when he will get in. And I don’t know if they can give him a refill – those blasted ADHD meds are controlled substances – without the med check.

  20. MM, when I needed a refill of narcotics this summer, the doc’s staff said I had to come in and be seen to get it. Because it was a controlled substance, it had to be the same doc and he was on vacation. First available appt was over a month away, they were sorry I was hurting, bye. I found the doc’s work email, sent him a note, and he used the office system to have a physical script printed out at the office. Voila! Can you do anything similar?

  21. They don’t have emails. I could try the regular ped, but she generally doesn’t like to do ADHD meds

  22. “Then he sits up and babbles whatever is on his little mind. Some mornings he won’t. shut. up.”

    Ahh, Rhode, you’re bringing back memories. I distinctly remember DD in the back seat of the car, babbling nonstop like the girl in the Volvo commercial, and me turning to DH and saying “we are so screwed when she starts using real words and we actually have to *listen* to this.”

    My hard-earned lesson is what others have said up top: Don’t force it. Open the door, but back off if they don’t want to talk. When they do talk, just STFU and listen and show them I have their back. That’s it.

  23. When DD was little, she used to babble like that too. I always felt like she was dying to say stuff. It took her a little longer than usual to start talking for real, which was expected because of the language shift. So for about 6 months, she did that excited babble thing. I kind of miss it. She still talks constantly, but somehow seems to say less

  24. My kids all talk non-freaking-stop. I know that I will miss it when they are older, but man, they do not shut up. Ever. They even talk in their sleep.

  25. OT – On the advice of some parents of ADHD kids, I recently got the book “Smart but Scattered” to learn some skills/tips on how to teach my sons better executive function skills. Problem is it is so detailed, with tons of background and explanation (and its a really nice day), that I can’t get myself to read it. It is so boring. I just want someone to tell me what to do!

    Identifying one’s own weaknesses with executive function is covered in the book. I guess this is one of mine.

    Anyone else use this book?

  26. I don’t recall my kid doing much babbling. The pediatrician would ask how many words he knew & I had no idea. When he was 1.5, she got concerned. I started keeping a log of all his words (& letters, he was asking for their names too). The babysitter always made more entries than I did. He had a couple three word sentences, then not much more with me until full sentences around age two. But we snuggled in the mornings, like the little Rhodester.

  27. “My kids all talk non-freaking-stop. I know that I will miss it when they are older, but man, they do not shut up. Ever. They even talk in their sleep.”

    Yes. Except it feels like it is rarely what I want to know about – school, friends, etc. It’s always the intricate details of a Playstation game or something that I find mind-numbing. Yes, that is what is more important to him, but it does get old nodding along and staying engaged in order to catch the “good” stuff. The “good” stuff comes randomly and without warning – sounds like that isn’t going to change.

  28. I have definitely learned to take it when they want to give it. When they are in a talkative mood, it truly is most frequently about pro or college sports which quickly gets to an “inside football” or “inside baseball” item…fine for me but DW quickly gets to the mind-numbing stage, as per Ivy. I will try to bring things around to at least the general level “When do ND/the Eagles play this wknd? (DW likes to watch them). Or some crap about how some kid got in trouble at school for X.

    I think, just sometimes, kids, especially boys, are more likely to start talking to their Dads because, at least speaking for myself, Dads are a whole lot less likely than Moms to bring up school, home tasks, stuff they (kid) forgot to do at the first opportunity to turn the conversation. IOW, they are around Mom (sorry if that construction offends from yesterday’s thread) much more often, Mom talks more than Dad and is frequently after them to clean their room, take out the trash, etc. so as a corollary to tuning her out, they don’t open up as much. And then again, maybe that’s just our house.

    If I want them to talk in the car now, I make sure they are driving. Otherwise they will be on their phone.

  29. Hey, related to the “no problem” response to “thank you.” I exchanged texts with DW earlier today.
    (meaningful conversation about what kind of bagels to get)
    Me: Onion, please
    DW: “Thanks”
    (automatic choice of response offered by my iPhone): “no problem”

    seriously. And I never say that as a substitute for “you’re welcome.”

  30. “I think, just sometimes, kids, especially boys, are more likely to start talking to their Dads because, at least speaking for myself, Dads are a whole lot less likely than Moms to bring up school, home tasks, stuff they (kid) forgot to do at the first opportunity to turn the conversation. IOW, they are around Mom (sorry if that construction offends from yesterday’s thread) much more often, Mom talks more than Dad and is frequently after them to clean their room, take out the trash, etc.

    This describes our house nicely. DH hardly ever brings up school, so he is the parent to talk to about the latest gadgets, cars etc. He will also sneak into the kids’ rooms and engage in horseplay.
    The one thing I do is text DS and I add emojis to the text messages. He likes that.

  31. My boys don’t talk nearly as much with their dad as they do with me. I certainly talk with them about school, but I am also the parent who is willing to discuss the minutiae of Magic The Gathering cards.

  32. DW has a bad habit (IMO) of asking the kids about schoolwork, if they’ve done their homework, tests, etc. She’s slowly coming around to my philosophy that they are old enough to handle everything themselves and they’ll ask for help when they need it. Those questions just get them to shut down very quickly. We can see their grades online so we don’t need to worry about them hiding bad grades from us.

  33. Denver, it might be a step in the right direction if she only asked about good grades or topics: “I see you’re doing topic X in science/history/whatever class. You know a lot about that. How did it go n class? Was it a good discussion?” Or “you got an A on your paper! Well done! What did you write about?” Might help build DS’s defenses against school anxiety while letting your wife scratch that itch to ask about school. From what you’ve said here; it doesn’t sound like your son needs any more pressure to do well.

  34. My youngest (17) will ask me…how was work? and the gym, crowded? sort of turning the tables. I always ask what he learned today (acceptable responses include outside-the-classroom things), and he’ll usually engage, but sometimes it’s the expected “nothing.”

  35. “DW has a bad habit (IMO) of asking the kids about schoolwork, if they’ve done their homework, tests, etc. ”
    Interesting because this kind of questioning works well with my two oldest. I think they see it as concern. In particular, my oldest, after his terrible 9th grade year, now appreciates people asking him how his work is going. I think his therapist trains him to see that as useful. And he does love to talk about any and all aspects of his life, so these questions usually unleash a lengthy description of some crazy assignment or another. The second kid usually wants to tell me about the interesting assignments.
    Now my daughter does not like this kind of questioning, but happily, my husband handles it with her. We have split up homework duty. She also hates the “what did you learn today” question which I sometimes try with her. But if I wait a bit, I can often get a long talke of which girl was mad at which other girl that day

  36. @Mooshi: my mom was always a “how’s the homework?” person. The problem is she also a planner/control freak who tends toward indirect. So I couldn’t tell if she meant “hey, is everything ok?” or “OMG, I am totally freaking out because you haven’t even *started* that project yet, it is *huge* and you are so disorganized you will never get it done.” So you can guess which interpretation I chose. (And I will also lay money that I was right at least 90% of the time. I do know my mother.”). I think around junior year I ended up telling her to back the hell off and leave me alone until I got a B.

    The irony is I really could have used some planning skills. I just couldn’t take them shoved down my throat with the veiled implication that I was insufficient.

  37. Laura, you’ve shared your worries about the organizational skill level of your daughter, who is now in high school. How do they compare to yours at that age?

  38. Laura, I can see that, and I can see how it could have gone that way with my kids. I think the difference was that I was a hands-off mom for a long time. Through elementary school, and really through 8th grade, I didn’t pay a ton of attention. He always seemed to do OK in elementary school, and I assumed his MS would be like mine, something to be coasted through. And then I started getting the emails, and notes home, about massive amounts of missing work. Because I wasn’t paying attention, I had no idea what he had done or not done. I would go meet with the teacher, who would ask me why he hadn’t submitted the last month of homework, and I would have to admit that I had no idea he even had homework in that class. That in turn would make me feel awful so I would go home and fly off the handle, asking him how he could have missed a whole month of homework. I guess a truly hands off parent would have just let him deal with the fallout, but at that point he was so despondant, and not talking to anyone and we were all so upset. I realized at that point it was something he wasn’t going to be able to handle on his own, and if he tried things would only get worse. Once he started seeing a ADHD person, and then the therapist, he kept hearing from then that he needed supervision, that he needed help to deal with his problems. He started accepting my supervision because he really did want to improve. And once it was on those terms, I also calmed down and was able to talk to him about homework in a positive way rather than a nagging way. Over time, he has gotten more organized on his own, and though I still check, I do not find lapses very often.
    So at this point, I am no longer a hands off mom, but I am a calmer mom, and the kids are fine with talking about homework every night.

  39. Do you guys talk about your day with your kids? One thing I notice now in peer families is that dinner talk is very child -centered. All about their day, their school work, their activities etc. When my oldest boys were little and my husband and I started having a conversation about work, I noticed they would tune out, like they weren’t supposed to participate. I learned so much at my childhood dinner table by listening to my parents talk about work, politics, whatever. So I told them, “that’s not polite, we expect you to be interested in our lives as well,” – we’ll try to make the stories age-appropriate, so they can understand something. Our family conversations were sill probably 70/30 kids/parents, but I think it was good for them.

  40. Mafalda – I definitely talk about my my work. This semester DS has an introduction to business class so we ended up having a great conversation about my work and his class.
    We talked about world religions and cultures, a good discussion.
    We also talk about current events and how that impacts all our lives. Now that the kids are older, it is fun discussing things with them.

  41. Mafalda – we try to talk about everyone’s day, including ours. The kids still have no idea what we do for work – they know the word “lawyer” but have no idea what I do, and DH’s work just looks like typing and talking on the phone to them. :) So sometimes I tell them that I helped X person figure out how to split their leftover money when they die.

    They are also small enough (still) that they won’t remember what happened earlier in the day without prompting, so I have to ask leading questions like “what did you make at school today? Tell Daddy!”

  42. @Mooshi – yeah, totally different scenario. That’s awesome that you were able to get past the resistance and he could see it was help.

    @SM: that’s a good question, and I really don’t know. I think she probably has better skills – ironically, she has my mom’s personality, just with ADHD on top. The problem is she just has so much more administrivia expectations – I would have crashed and burned with her logistical/minutia-focused school expectations/grading policies. But she’s also not quite as quick/intuitive as I am – I daydreamed my way through school, but I picked up the concepts quickly enough that it wasn’t an issue, and since I think in terms of big picture, even when I missed some detail I was always able to apply the general principles to reason my way to an answer; whereas DD thinks from the ground up, so when she is distracted and misses a fact here or there, it really interferes with her ability to pull the whole theory together in her head and apply it to slightly different scenarios (like they do in tests). So the end result is she is probably better organized at this age than I was, but she is also struggling more in school because of the ADHD than I ever did.

  43. Mafalda, when he was 4 or 5, I remember him saying “oh, mama, how was your day?” I loved that, and of course I gave very simplified, abbreviated answers. He has just gotten back to recognizing that I have a day too, and of course it is much easier to talk about it with a 13-yr-old than with a preschooler. We have some interesting conversations, and he can have his own opinions now. Today he said that vegetarianism is stupid, so we talked about that (I’ve been a vegetarian since long before he was born). And there’s all the laughter I mentioned earlier too. Today he showed me a streamer who makes him laugh. I can’t imagine having a favorite video of someone playing a game, but he knew this one pretty well. It’s fun that he isn’t a complete mini-me.
    When I was growing up, dinner always included my dad describing each of his surgical cases that morning and patients who weren’t recovering well. I was in high school before I heard that some kids would find that disturbing, and could not understand why. I thought it was very cool and interesting.

  44. I agree with all the comments above about being willing to listen whenever they are ready to talk. Like others, I had to learn not to bring up school every time we talked – it really stressed my older child out. When she was in middle school and I could tell it was impacting our relationship, we agreed upon the time we could talk about school and I could ask all my questions (4:00 – 4:10), and then no other school talk. Taking walks together was a nag-free zone where I would not bring up anything remotely mom-ish. It fixed our issues, and was good for us. With my son, the family schedule worked out to where he and I could go out to eat together once a week. That was a double-win, because he is such a picky eater he never has a very big dinner, so we would go out for fajitas to his favorite Mexican place. He ate plenty, and I got one-on-one time to talk with him.

    We do talk about our (adults) days at dinner, and tell them stories that they might be able to relate to. And I do use it for teaching moments, because I can’t help myself, but one of my kids has to be told things explicitly. This week it was “when someone at work asks you if you want to go get a cup of coffee, they are not being literal and you are not required to drink coffee – they just want to talk to you or are trying to initiate friendship.” Without a doubt I know he would say no to that invitation because he does not drink coffee. A lot of these lessons are most easily worked in in the context of a story.

    Both my kids share my interest in politics, and I expect them to come to the table with something to contribute. That means they both quickly skim HuffPo before dinner, but it keeps them at least somewhat current on the world they are living in. Plus, I endured many years of the intricate details of whatever videogame, so it seems only fair.

  45. LfB, interesting comment about how much more organization is required now. It is taught explicitly in most classes in my son’s schools; I got through a couple semesters of college before learning what highlighters are/how all that yellow got into used books. They do exercises like “highlight all the Xs this color and all the Ys that color”.

  46. MBT, I could’ve used that kind of help! My third year of college, a guy asked if I wanted to go out for a beer sometime & I said “I hate beer”. He figured something else out and we dated for the rest of the year.

  47. Oh, my poor kids definitely have to hear about our work days during dinner, Because I do teach, it is closer to their experience so they love hearing stories of students trying to get out of work, or silly administrators. But they also hear my husbands stories about software blowing up, production servers blowing up, clueless helpdesk people, irate foul mouthed traders, and more.

  48. MBT and S&M – you remind me of the Seinfeld episode where George’s date asks him up for coffee (meaning sex), and he says “no, coffee keeps me awake.” One of my favorite episodes – where Jerry has to do the answering machine tape switcheroo!

  49. The go get coffee is a good example, I should mention that to my kids. Even if you don’t actually go get coffee, just like talking to your kids about non work related stuff is enjoyable, the same thing applies to your work mates. As Rhett mentions, the ability to chat with colleagues about non work related stuff to the extent they are comfortable is important. Many times you don’t have to talk just listen.

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