Teens Not Talking

Many teens are not especially communicative.  However some teenagers are particularly unlikely to share information or respond questions about their day or their interests.  Some tips for talking to these teens are below.

1. Talk while doing something else at the same time

For example, try conversations in the car, while taking the dog for a walk, while doing the ironing and so on.  If possible create spots in your house that a teenager can sit and eat or look at magazines etc while you are also doing something (cleaning up etc).

If none of these things happen naturally in your family routine, it might be worth creating them on purpose for a month or two – change systems around so that you drive them to school for a while, or drop off another sibling before you take them to soccer practice.  Or set up a month of Wednesday night walks, or a couple of weeks of shooting hoops outside after tea or something similar.

2.  Try lowering your expression of emotion (both positive and negative) while talking to the uncommunicative teen.

Teenagers will often “turn off” if they pick up on stress, anxiety, worry, frustration and over-excitement in a parent/carer’s voice.  It can be helpful to try to be as neutral as possible in conversations with these teens.  In other words, express interest and care but try to stay nonchalant, casual and “mild” in the words you use, body language and facial expressions.  Think “tone it down” while you talk, regardless of what you are asking about or what a teenager says.

3. Try closed questions

If open ended questions (how was your day?) aren’t getting you anywhere, try closed questions in which the teenager doesn’t have to think so hard or use many words in order to be able to respond.  I have listed some ideas about closed question forms to try below.  Don’t forget to keep your expression of emotion low (as explained above) as you ask these questions – caring, but casual and low key.

“This or this” questions

For example:

  • So, what did you like most today:  physics or English?
  • Is it the work itself or the teacher you are finding hardest to deal with?
  • Which friend is the most like you would you say – Tara or Jemma?
  • Are you enjoying basketball or cricket the most this year do you think?

The “est” part/aspect/bit

  • What was the hardest bit about the day?
  • What was the coolest bit of the party?
  • What is the easiest subject for you this year?
  • What do you most dislike about your jobs around the house?

Rate on a scale questions

  • On a scale of 1-10, how good has your day been?  How about yesterday?
  • If you had to rate your subjects from easiest to hardest in a line, where would you put them?

4. Don’t get angry, walk away and try again tomorrow

If the teenager still struggles to or clearly doesn’t want to respond to questions like this, try not to take it personally.  It doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a good relationship with the teenager necessarily, and it doesn’t mean the teenager doesn’t care about you, or even that they don’t WANT to talk to you necessarily.  A teen’s reluctance to talk may simply be about skill level, or the emotions the teen is experiencing at the time which make it hard to talk.

Of course understanding that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get frustrated or hurt.  Try not to let the teenager see that you are frustrated (or at least keep some kind of lid on the expression of it!) and let it go. But do not stop trying to communicate with the teenager – just try again the next day, in a slightly different way or context.

5. Try communicating with the written word

Communicating with a teenager is more important than the medium by which it is done.  Some teens go through a period of years in which they are not able to/interested in/good at face to face talks with adults.  In these years, “supplement” communication with other options such as: email, texts, notes on the cupboard, Facebook posts (yes, even if they are in the next room).  Try it out and see how it goes, you don’t have to do it everyday.  It won’t be forever, but for now, the need for communication (ie for you to say something positive and loving, for them to ask you questions and to tell you things) is more important than anything else.

6. Talk about yourself

When communicating with uncommunicative teens, when they are not talking, fill the silence sometimes with casual conversation about your own experiences and ideas.  Make sure it is not “agenda driven” (ie, “when I was a teenager I wasn’t allowed to talk back to my parents” is not going to win you any favours!) but talking idly about things that might have some (even minimal) interest to the young person sends a couple of messages.  First, it models the “sharing” behaviour we want the young person to act out.  If we don’t do it, we can hardly expect them to.  Second, it shows the young person that we are not angry that they are being uncommunicative (which as outlined above, only shuts down communication further). 

7. Try addressing the uncommunicative behaviour directly

Teens know that we want them to talk more than they are, and they know what we are trying to do with all of the strategies listed above.  Sometimes, it can work to be upfront and honest about it, by using statements such as:

  • I know you don’t always feel comfortable talking about this stuff, and I really will try not to bug you, but I just need to know a couple of things.
  • Here we go again, your Mum is going to pester you for information, I know it’s a pain – can I just ask you – say five questions about this and I will stop talking.
  • I can see that you are not in the mood for talking right now, when would be a good time for me to ask you about these things?
  • I’m sorry, you probably feel like I am bugging you.  There are times I don’t like being asked questions either.  Is there a way I can do it so that it is easier?

8. Offer options for communicating with someone else

If all else fails, and in fact even if it doesn’t, it is a really good idea to try to set up situations and circumstances in which the teenager is regularly conversing with another adult they trust.  Organise for an aunt/family friend/older cousin to take the teen out for coffee, have to drive them somewhere, do some babysitting which ends with a conversation or something similar.  Set up either one off or regular counselling sessions with a GP/school counsellor/psychologist or similar.  Almost any communication that happens between a teenager and adult can have positive outcomes.  Not only can it help the teenager feel supported and get ideas about getting through life, it also gives the teen practice in communicating which is likely to result in increased communication with yourself.

If you are really struggling to communicate with your teenager and are concerned about their wellbeing, you might like to read more about our counselling services here