It was a beautiful Friday night for high school football. I was in my mid-twenties and had just started volunteering with an organization called Young Life. It is an outreach to teenagers. I sat in my car as the game was beginning and was scared out of my mind. My assignment was to go into the game and befriend some teenagers. I knew a couple already, but not many. I fought the urge to go home and went in. Immediately I saw Brad, a sarcastic sophomore. We hadn’t seen each other since camp that summer. I was so relieved as we started talking. He was with a group I didn’t know. Just as our conversation wound down and I anticipated that he’d introduce me to his friends, he turned his back on me. All of a sudden, I was standing on the outside of a closed-off group, feeling like an idiot.
I love teenagers. They can be breathtakingly frustrating, full of energy, wonderfully fun, and engaging. When kids are young, they tell their parents everything, but when they enter their teen years, walls go up. It’s tough. They can be standoffish and isolate themselves in their rooms, putting parents of teens in a difficult position. But after spending 16 years working with teens, having tons of conversations with them, I learned there are ways to break down teenagers’ walls. Here are 6 of them.
1. Know that you don’t know.
You don’t know what it’s like to be them. Being a teenager is not the same today as it was when you were in high school. Teens today are bombarded with burdens we were lucky to avoid. Technology gives them access to knowledge that’s as much a curse as it is a blessing. They have access to things they don’t have the maturity to handle. Expectations from society, the educational system, coaches, and parents run them ragged. They are exhausted, stressed out, and have little to no downtime.
2. Be present.The more you are with your teen, the more opportunities you will have to talk with your teen.
This is really simple. The more you are with your teen, the more opportunities you will have to talk with your teen. Step into your teens’ world as best you can. Take an interest in the things they are doing, especially if it seems like a mystery to you. Support them at their games, activities, and performances. Go to games and events they go to even if their own involvement is as a spectator. Give them space, but observe the sights and sounds they live. It’s important to breathe in the aroma of their life. It will help you speak their language.
Do things the two of you like to do together or figure out what your teens like to do and do it with them. If you don’t know how to do it, let them teach you. Letting them teach you something they’re good at is like depositing money at a relationship bank. It shows you care and gives them confidence. Let them invite their friends if they want. Don’t underestimate the power of play. You won’t believe how many doors it opens.
4. Talk when they’re ready to talk.
Teenagers decide to talk at the weirdest times. Be ready, because it will happen when you least expect it. You will ask them questions all night and receive one-word answers. Just as you lay down at midnight, totally exhausted, they show up at your door and unload. Dive in when they open up or you will miss your chance.
5. Spend one-on-one time with them.
Making them the sole focus sets the table for them to share. Pick a place where they feel comfortable and safe. Try to think of places where they would want to be for an extended period of time. Avoid places where they feel like someone could overhear what they say.
6. Ask good questions.
Stay away from yes or no questions because teens will feel like you’re interrogating them. Use open-ended questions instead. Develop the art of leading teens down a path with your questions. If you do it right, they will start sharing deep thoughts naturally (and without realizing it). Think of it like slowly cooking a turkey. Going right for the jugular, the deep question, right off the bat more than likely will shut them down, particularly when you haven’t been present or played with them. Be patient. Listen carefully to their answers. There can be significant meaning in things that a non-discerning ear would let pass by. One-word answers, tones, and body language all come floating out of them. Pay close attention so you don’t miss them.
Sound off: What do you think teenagers need most from adults?
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Can you think of a time when your feelings were hurt by someone?”