5 Ways to Start Tough Talks with Closed-Door Teens

By Dr. Robyn Silverman, author of How to Talk to Kids About Anything

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Mom.”
“Go away!”

Not exactly the response we want, is it? I literally wrote the book on How to Talk to Kids about Anything and yet, that doesn’t give me the magic button to make it all easy with a 14-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. And yet, we must get talking.

The science tells us these 3 truths whether we are referring to discussions about sex, suicide, money, friendship and more.

  • Kids want to talk to parents about important, awkward, hard subjects.
  • When kids talk to their parents about tough topics, they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors
  • When kids don’t talk to their parents about tough topics, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

So how do we open the door when teens are often closing them on their paths to individuate, gain privacy and spend more time with friends?

1) Take the chance: Get awkward. If you haven’t talked to your kids about tough topics, the ones people usually put a big THE in front of—THE sex talk, THE tech talk, THE drug talk….”start. You may not get it all right (you probably won’t, who does?) but when you start, you crack the door open. You are saying, “I want to talk. I’m willing to talk. I’m able to listen. I’m here.” You may be surprised by their response and what they take in. There have been times when I thought my kid was barely listening and then, a few weeks later, I hear them relaying my exact words to a friend. Our words penetrate.

2) Look for the lobs: Perhaps your kids, like mine, sometimes lob up an opportunity to talk about difficult topics. It happens in a moment—and can easily be missed if we aren’t fully plugged in. For example, a few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car with my daughter when she said to me, “If I went to a party when I was like, 16, and there was drinking there—and I drank- would you just be so furious with me? Would I get in so much trouble?” It was a test. You see, it’s in these moments that we can either show yourself as their safe person or as their warden. What do you really want them to know? Here’s what I said, “While you know how I feel about underage drinking, the one thing I would absolutely want you to know is no matter where you are or what time it is—it could be 3am 3 towns away- that you can call me to come and get you no questions asked. You will never get in trouble for asking for help to stay safe and away from harm.”

3) Move from lecturer to listener: It’s so easy to go into a tough talk with an agenda—wanting to hit on several points so that your child knows what they need to know to make the safest, most fair, or what you view as the “best choice.” However, your child may be coming from a different perspective or with different information that sways their interpretation of what the “best choice” is. Instead, listen. Ask powerful questions. “What do you think?” “What do you know about this topic already?” “What would you say or do?” or even “What am I missing in the way I’m viewing this topic these days?” Your children will appreciate your desire to learn from them rather than always be in the position of “safe,” and you’ll likely get a lot further with the conversation.

4) Ask for advice: Along the same lines, your child may have the perfect guidance for a friend’s kid, if you ask them their opinion. Giving this “once-removed” scenario takes the pressure off of them and allows them the gift of perspective. “Nicole’s 4th grader, Riley, is having a lot of problems with her friend group…she’s being left out because of XYZ. Her parents don’t know how to help her, and Riley is miserable.” Allow your children to respond and use their unique position as someone who may have recently gone through a similar situation to provide insight and suggestions. Young people love to be asked for their outlook and appreciate being valued for what they can offer.

5) Start where they are—and with who they are: Some kids are more scientific while others are more visual or auditory. What works best to open-up conversation with your kid? Some might respond best with a story. “Did you know that Oprah was fired from her first job for being ‘unfit for TV news’ before making it big with her own show? Often it takes several tries before people see and appreciate your unique gifts.” Others might open up when you start with a statistic. “I read a study that said that the majority of kids but age 11 have seen porn. Is that surprising to you?” Still others might do best reading a note or going back and forth with a parent-child journal, watching and responding to a video or viewing a movie with you and discussing it afterwards. When we start with our children’s communication style in mind, we can find the conversation flowing better.

Our kids want this information, and they want it from a trusted source—us. Many young people don’t feel that they have at least 3 people to turn to in a time of need or challenge. Let’s be one of the 3—and know that to be in that coveted position, we need to get awkward, be creative, listen and keep trying.

When kids know that we want to talk about the tough stuff, even when we don’t have all the answers, they realize we are all in it together. And above all, know that a closed door doesn’t always mean we are shut out but rather, we need to keep on knocking and showing up.

Learn more about Dr. Robyn:

Known as the “Conversation Doc,” Dr. Robyn Silverman is a child and teen development specialist and author of the [forthcoming] book, How to Talk to Kids About Anything, as well as the host of the popular podcast of the same name. She is a cofounder of the Powerful Words Character System, which gives educators the talking points they need to help children become kind, responsible citizens of the world. 

Dr. Robyn has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Early Show and Nightline and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, CNN.com, and many other publications. She lives with her husband, two kids and fuzzy rescue dog who loves sunning himself on their front steps, even in the summer heat of North Carolina.

Find out all about the book at DrRobynSilverman.com.

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