Conversation Bridges: Talking to Teens on Their Terms

It really happened by accident. We moved to a new town the summer my son was entering sixth grade and he didn’t know anyone. After dropping him off for the first day of school, I passed one of my favorite coffee shops. I wanted to do something special for him because he was handling this big change like a trooper, so after school we stopped. He ordered a frozen coffee and I got my favorite café mocha and we sat down. “How was your day?” I asked him. “It was OK. I really like my band teacher,” he answered. And that conversation began our weekly “coffee Fridays” until the day he graduated from high school. The Friday tradition continues with my daughters, and sometimes when we’re sipping our drinks, my son calls from college and joins the conversation. It’s something they can count on and look forward to.

So what does an accidental trip to a coffee shop have to do with building conversation bridges? Teens have busier lives today than we ever did. Where I could count on dinner with my parents every night, today’s kids are running to sports practices, music lessons and dance classes while parents grab dinner at the nearest drive-thru so there’s time to do homework before bed. It’s not the healthiest way to raise children, but some families can’t seem to slow down. Carving out time to talk to our teens must be more than sharing calendar changes.

Time to Talk and Teach

A recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that teens whose families eat dinner together at least five times per week are less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs. But it takes parents who are tuned in and listening to hear what their teens are saying. Psychologist and author Dr. James Dobson tells parents that the teenage years can be filled with uncomfortable silences. He writes, “the same kid who used to talk a mile a minute and ask a million questions has now reduced his vocabulary to nine monosyllabic phrases- “I dunno,” “Maybe,” “I forget,” “Huh?” “No!” “Nope,” “Yeah,” “Who–me?” and “He did it.” Giving teens non-threatening opportunities to talk is the key to conversation.

Beyond the Dinner Table

Even if your family makes dinner together a priority, it may be the first down time in everyone’s day. And communicating with your kids can sound like little more than “homework tonight?” Finding other times or moments when kids feel less pressured is often a better way to help them open up.

Using these “already-available” times to build conversation bridges is a good place to begin:

  • Car Talk– Maybe it’s because you aren’t making eye contact, but talking while riding can be a non-threatening conversation bridge to teen feelings. And with so many activities, time spent in the car may actually exceed time spent together at home.
  • Pillow Talk– the days of bedtime stories may seem long gone, but talking to your teens before they go to sleep is a conversation bridge worth dusting off. Take time each night to walk into your kid’s room, sit down on the side of the bed and let them know they are still your number one priority.
  • Technology Talk– being unplugged for at least a part of each day is important for developing minds. But parents looking for conversation bridges may be missing the “technology” elephant in the room. Although texting and social networking should never replace time together, parents can get valuable insight into their teens’ lives by connecting in this way.

Time to Listen and Learn

Like most adults I’m better at talking than listening, especially when it comes to communicating with teens. But talking without listening is a one-sided communication bridge headed for collapse. Active listening helps parents interact with their teens without making them feel judged or rejected. Use some of the following active listening techniques to let your teens know this conversation bridge is wide open:

  • Put away all distractions
  • Make direct eye contact
  • Use active language without judging. Try these for starters: “So what I hear you saying is this. Is that right?” and “You’re telling me that (blank) makes you feel this way.”

Author and 30-year youth-ministry veteran Les Christie recommends using open-ended questions to get conversations going with teens. In his book, 450 Unfinished Sentences (Zondervan, 2000), Christie encourages parents to use unfinished sentences that can’t be answered with just one word any time an opportunity for conversation presents itself.

Getting teens to talk isn’t always easy, but building bridges of communication makes the path to understanding well worth the journey.