Updated: Dec 11, 2020
If your teenager's favorite saying is "I'm fine" to every parent question - you are not alone! Parents have lots of questions about their teens' college experience and it seems the more we want to know, the less our teenagers tell us. So how can parents encourage their teens to open up and share important information about college? Here are 3 tips for parents to create meaningful conversations.
Tip 1: Understand your teens' conversation style
First and foremost, it's important to know what makes your teen comfortable and more likely to engage in a conversation. It won't matter which questions you ask if your college student is too tired, too distracted, or too disengaged to listen. You know your student best. What time of day are they most likely to open up - morning, afternoon, evening? Even if YOU get sleep by 9pm your student may be most relaxed and likely to talk in the evening. My daughter likes going on car rides and listening to music after dinner. So I make myself some coffee, get in the car and get ready for whatever she wants to share with me. What time of day or in what environment does your teenager have the best chance of opening up and sharing with you? It's important to understand that when YOU are ready to talk may NOT be when your college student is ready. Before starting a conversation, it's important to set the stage. If you're not sure when is your teen's best time to talk, ask them!
Tip 2: Open vs. Closed Questions
Once you have thought about WHEN to ask your student questions, the next consideration is HOW you will ask. Depending on how you phrase your questions, you will get different answers. Thinking about the wording of your questions can help your conversation with your student be more productive. Think about the difference between open and closed questions. Closed questions seek specific answers - and this can be ok when we are simply needing pieces of information such as “What is the first day of your semester?" or "Did you receive an email with the monthly tuition bill?” Sometimes, however, we want to ask questions that will allow our student to have some latitude in answering and to expanding on their answers. “Do you think college is hard?” (closed question) may elicit a one word answer, but “Tell me about a challenge you had this semester?” (open question) will give room for a more interesting answer.
"The wise man doesn't give the right answers; he poses the right questions." - Claude Levi-Strauss
Tip 3: Some Questions Can Dig Deeper
You may ask open-ended questions, but still not feel that you have the information you need. Asking non-judgmental follow-up questions can help you to elicit more information, clarify what you’ve heard, get more complete or accurate information, or get beyond superficial answers. Follow-up questions can also help you, as the parent, confirm that you accurately heard and understand your student's answer. Examples of follow-up questions include: “How does that work . . .” “I don’t understand what you mean by …” or “That's really interesting. Can you tell me more about that?” These follow-up questions let your teen know that you are interested in what they said and want to know more. It's important to ask follow-up questions in a non-judgmental tone of voice. A question that often comes to mind first but isn't the most effective is asking "Why?". This follow-up question usually elicits a defensive response from teens. Asking follow-up questions also allows you get more information before responding with emotion. My recent article in Collegiate Parent shares some tips for parents about how they can practice reacting without emotion (hint: it gets easier with practice).
Let's look at an example:
After looking at the credit card bill, you realize that your college student spent $500 on food delivery in one semester. When you ask them about the credit card charges they respond "My roommate asked me to." As a parent, your immediate reaction might be "Why would you do that?" and feel angry toward the roommate. However, asking a follow-up question such as "Can you tell me more about why your roommate asked you to buy food delivery?" your teen might respond "My roommate bought food for me earlier in the semester and so it's my turn to pay them back." The follow-up question allowed your student to offer more information. Now that you have a more complete picture of what happened, your response as a parent most likely will be different than it would have been when you only had one piece of the story.
Not all teenagers are solitary and give one word answers. But if this does sound like your teen, don't worry. Asking questions when your teen is most likely to share, thinking about the words you use, and waiting for the whole picture before responding can help your teen open up and create opportunities for meaningful conversations.