How to engage teenagers without interrogating them

Psychologist Raymond Dalton says we need to approach our teens with compassion and patience.
Psychologist Raymond Dalton says we need to approach our teens with compassion and patience.  Photo: Shutterstock

This teenage phase is exciting and enraging all at once, isn't it? The increased independence is great. The desire to assert their own views and desires is also fascinating. However, the lack of engaging conversation at the day's end is one component I'm not loving so much.

I'm big on communication. It's the foundation of my work. I'm also big on details so it's normal for me to ask my children how their day was, if they learned anything captivating, who they hung out with, etc. I don't pummel them daily with all these questions, but I like to participate in friendly conversations that, in my mind, show I'm interested in their lives.

My teenage son thinks I'm the head of the Spanish Inquisition, recently suggesting that his reason for giving monosyllabic answers is that I ask too many questions. He's right. I do. But how do I get something out of him, other than a grunt, if I don't ask questions? Surely, he's too old for me to say, "use your words"!

Nick Duigan is a Senior Clinical Advisor at headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation, he says "a grunt, deflection or disengagement can mean lots of things. It might mean: 'I don't have the words to describe how I'm feeling'. This is very common. Young people are often building their emotional vocabulary and literacy, as well as their capacity to share this with others. The process of sharing deep emotions that may be new, is incredibly confronting. Questioning somebody when they might not know how to respond can be experienced as confronting. One way to end the conversation is to grunt or avoid."

The grunt could mean a myriad of other things too: they had something happen at school they don't want to talk about, they're annoyed because you said something they didn't like, they're worried about an upcoming assignment, they're bored, they don't want to talk right now, they're zoning out and sick of answering questions about school, or a grunt could mean absolutely nothing at all!

So, how do we engage our teenagers without making them feel interrogated?

Rather than a one-way demand for information, Nick recommends sharing stories from your day, or funny and interesting things that are happening in the world. These give a young person the chance to "join in the conversation as an equal rather than be asked to disclose information about themselves."

Nick suggests some other approaches for engagement:

  • Share time together doing things they enjoy
  • Learn something new together (e.g. new recipe, music, book, game, sport, hobby, shopping, anything)
  • Have more regular general conversations that don't ask much of the young person to contribute
  • Put some interesting articles in the bathroom or on the kitchen bench that might be read any time. These articles might be around hobbies, or on relationships in some way. 
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Psychologist Raymond Dalton and the team from Green Life Psychology are also experienced with adolescents who can be challenging to engage. Raymond reminds us that teenhood is like a second toddlerhood. "There is hormone change, growth, peer relationships (or for some, peer survival), new expectations from parents…" With this in mind, we need to approach our teens with compassion and patience. He recommends talking while doing an activity together, or while in the car. "Try and make it nonthreatening and supportive."

Raymond adds that when there's important topics to discuss, "it can be better to come back to things instead of trying to talk about it when it is happening. 'Earlier you said…' or 'yesterday when you came home…'"

It's just as imperative to be aware of the non-verbal cues. Raymond suggests we try noticing as much as we can about their regular behaviours and emotions - and any changes to these - without always asking, "Is everything okay?"

I'm getting the impression that lowering my standards of conversation while my teens navigate their way through the murky waters of adolescence could be helpful.

"Don't take the ten-foot platform and dive for conversation gold. Especially if it's been a while between swims. Sometimes little bits and pieces work best. It can also set you up for later conversation. Things like, 'Oh that sounds like the same crap that Bob would pull'. Little things can make them feel like you get it," Raymond says.

Trust, understanding and honesty are the keys to open channels of communication with our teenagers. And as Nick reiterates, "Let them know that you love them. They may not always admit it but this is likely to be very important to them."

Read more tips and suggestions at headspace.