Updated: Jun 22, 2022
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
– Peter Drucker
Entering a teenager’s room can feel like walking into a lion’s cage. Your teen suspects you're there to get something, usually an answer to an important question, and they immediately put up their guard.
When I coach college parents, I frequently offer advice about how they can engage their teenagers in conversation, and more importantly, how to create meaningful conversations that last longer than the usual two word response, “I’m fine.”
In any conversation with your student, I agree with Aaron Burr’s character in the Broadway play Hamilton who advises Alexander to “talk less, smile more.” Below I outline four steps to having open and meaningful conversations with young adults: setting the stage, breaking the ice through relationship-building questions, being aware of your body language and resisting the urge to solve your teen’s problems.
1. Set the Stage
Parents, think for a moment about how you would answer if someone asked you to share your proudest moment from the past few weeks. You’d need a few minutes to reflect, filter through all of your recent activities and then identify an experience you felt comfortable sharing.
Now imagine you were asked to do this while standing in line at the grocery store. Would you feel particularly open and comfortable? Probably not. But if you were asked the same question while sitting on your couch at home under a cozy blanket you might feel differently.
This principle applies to conversations with your teens as well. Environment and timing can be just as important as the words we use.
To increase the likelihood of your teen engaging in a conversation, think about the environments where they’re most comfortable. Where do they feel relaxed? Where do they feel valued? Do they enjoy going on walks with the family pet? Do they love car rides with their favorite music playing? Do they feel at ease on the basketball court, hiking or on the beach?
Each person’s comfort zone is unique to them. Each sibling’s comfort zone is different, too, and the location where you and your student are most likely to connect and chat could be completely different from where their brother or sister feels comfortable opening up.
2. Ask a Relationship-Building Question First
Before jumping into the real question that you want to ask, I suggest asking a relationship-building question. To understand why this approach works, let’s apply the principle to a different situation (and one of my favorite topics) — food.
Do you know why grocery stores offer customers free food samples? (At least they did pre-COVID.) Stores have promotional items and brands each week that they're trying to sell and they know that customers are more likely to buy an item if they try it first. Frozen meatballs may not be on my grocery list, but it’s hard to resist buying a package if my taste buds have told my brain, “YUM — you need these!”
Your student might not initially want to open up about their struggles but they’ll be more likely to do so if you ask a “free sample” question first. Lead with a question that will get you halfway there and build connection.
What you want to know: Why did you get a D in English?
The question you ask first: What did you think of your classes this semester? What was your favorite class? What was your least favorite class? What do you think made that class so difficult?
What you want to know: Why did you spend $1,000 on food delivery to your dorm?
The question you ask first: What do you think of the dining hall food? What hours are they open? When you don’t eat there, where do you like to eat?
What you want to know: Why do you procrastinate and start your assignments the night before they’re due?
The question you ask first: Do you have a lot of short-term or long-term assignments this semester? What’s your process for tackling long-term assignments? I think your college has a writing/tutoring center that can help you break big projects into smaller ones — let’s look at their website together.
3. Recognize Your Body Language
Once you’ve set the stage and your college student has started talking, your body language will be a factor in whether or not they keep sharing or pull away.
I’ve noticed that when I walk into my daughter’s bedroom and stay standing with my arms crossed instead of sitting on her bed she is less likely to talk with me. In the moment, it can be challenging to step outside of ourselves and be aware of our body posture, stance, facial expression, tone and voice volume as a teenager would perceive them. But it’s necessary for us to recognize our hidden habits that might be sabotaging our ability to have meaningful conversations with our teens.
For example, studies in the psychology of communication have shown that an imbalance in the height and perceived authority of two people having a conversation can affect the willingness of one person to communicate with the other. If your teen is sitting on the couch, on the floor or on their bed and you initiate a conversation while standing above them, your stance alone can shut it down before it starts.
I recommend asking your teen if you can sit next to them before starting a conversation. If they’re having a cup of hot chocolate on the couch consider making a cup of tea and asking, “You look comfy — mind if I join you?” Paying attention to this aspect of communication can improve the quality of your conversations with your student.
4. Lead (Don’t Push) Your Student to the Answer
When I coach college students who are struggling socially or academically, I always have a goal or skill in mind that I know will help to “solve” their problem. Through talking with students, I can pretty quickly identify negative habits that are affecting students’ success.
However, if I were to tell a student, “Here’s what you’re doing wrong and here’s what you need to do about it,” the student would probably respond defensively and not listen to me again.
Even if I can identify a problem area right away, I see my role as guiding my students to identify the problem themselves and identify the solution on their own. This takes strategic questioning (see #2 above) and patience, but it’s the path to learning.
As parents, it can be difficult to listen without judgment and to resist the urge to offer a quick solution. We all want quick fixes. But there is so much more value in responding with, “How do YOU think you would solve that problem?”
Little by little, you are shifting your communication style.
As your teen becomes more independent, your communication style with them will gradually shift from a parent who problem solves and offers solutions to a parent who listens and offers support.
It may be hard to hang back and not jump into action. You may feel the urge to solve your student’s problems by offering suggestions. Or you may be tempted to intervene by contacting their academic advisor or their roommate’s parents when issues arise.
After all, you may have been in the driver’s seat during your teen’s high school years. Recently a parent shared with me that they’ve spent the last 18 years solving their son’s problems and it feels unnatural to sit back and let him face challenges on his own. But when your teen opens up and shares their struggles, they may be looking mostly for affirmation that they can figure it out on their own.
When you hear about a small problem that doesn’t require immediate adult help you may want to try, “That sounds like a tough situation you’re in. I’m here to help if you want to talk more.”
Empowering your student demonstrates that you trust and have confidence in their ability to solve their own problems. When they recognize that you trust them, they'll be more likely to share details with you — the good and the not so good — in the future.
This post was written by Jennifer Sullivan and previously published on Collegiate Parent.