Listen: Brett Ryan from Focus on the Family shares his advice for connecting with teenagers.
If you have a teenager who answers you with miniscule responses like “Yeah”, “Nah”, “Maybe” and “Nothing”, you’re not alone.
It’s a common trait for teens, who are in a stage of development called ‘individuation’—which, for some, involves painfully closing mums and dads out of their world. But connecting with them again is not impossible, says families pastor Brett Ryan, and parents shouldn’t give up in despair.
In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Duncan and Laura, he shared a number of ways parents can make inroads with their silent, brooding sons and daughters.
“It’s a challenge a lot of parents have, especially with boys, because they’re not as communicative and chatty as girls,” he said, “and quite often they can be quite monosyllabic. They don’t want to have anything to say. It’s, ‘How was your day?’, ‘Good’. ‘What did you do today?’, ‘Nothing’.”
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Parenting by Stealth: Be Present
Brett’s first advice is to look for ways to simply be present in their space, without overtly intruding. That may mean watching a TV show while they’re on the lounge scrolling on their phone; being on the sidelines at their soccer game; or taking them to the supermarket to get something they need.
As the parent of young adults himself, he’s seen how the simple act of being nearby, can open the door to conversation.
“If she got one-word responses, she would take her laptop and do some emails sitting on their bed.”
“My wife had a really good way of doing this,” Brett said. “She did what I call parenting by stealth. When they came home from school or something, if she got those one-word responses and didn’t get the conversation she wanted, she would just take her laptop and do some emails sitting on their bed, while they were in their room doing homework or something.
“They would look up and ask, ‘What are you doing?’, and she would say, ‘I’m just doing my emails’. And then all of a sudden, just because she was present in their world, it opens up. And so sometimes we actually have to be fully physically present, but also emotionally aware and relationally aware. Be intuitive and understand where they’re coming from.”
Other strategies include looking for small moments for conversation when you’re taking them to sport practice or school, having meals together as a family without the distraction of phones and TV screens, and asking open-ended questions, such as ‘What did you think of the movie last night?’
Let Them Know the Door is Always Open
Giving your teenager the message that the door is always open to chat when they need it, is also a good strategy. Make sure you have times when you’re not too busy, not absorbed in your phone or work, so they have the opportunity to talk if they need to.
“Kids want to be listened to,” he said. “You need to allow them to share their feelings. But that only comes over time. And it may not happen overnight, but it will if you always have that open door.
“Tell them, ‘I’d really like to help you, or hear what you’ve got going on in your world, and when you’re ready, I’m here for you’.
“Often that could be at 10:30 or 11 at night, and you’re going to sleep. But that’s often their time clock. And sometimes you have to actually sacrifice maybe a bit of your own sleep, because that’s the time they want to speak.
“Be available, because you never know what might come up.”
Listen More Than you Speak
In those victorious moments when your introspective teenager does open up, make sure you listen actively—a skill parents often neglect.
Active listening is ‘leaning in’ to what your child is saying. Put your phone aside, focus your eye contact, give nods and smiles where appropriate, and lean forward to show you are interested. Reflecting back to them what they have said and what they are feeling.
And resist the temptation to immediately defend yourself, or correct your teen. Be open to their viewpoint, even if it’s different to yours.
“Being fully engaged and listening to them actively is a really good place to start,” Brett said.
Even if They Don’t Connect, Be a Role Model
When all else fails, the best thing a parent can do is continue to be the role model their children need, says Brett.
“This is my number one advice out of everything—to be a role model,” he said. “It’s all very well for you to point the finger and say ‘you should be more like that’. You need to be the type of person you want them to be.”
And his final tip? Quite simply, don’t give up. No matter how distant they become, your teenager, deep down, still needs you and wants you around.
“They may be pushing you away, but they’re really saying, ‘Don’t come too close, don’t hover over me—but I still want your input in my life’.”