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How Can I Get My High Schooler to Open Up to Me?

From the Parent Cue
My husband and I have three children—ages 23, 21, and 18. One boy and two girls. And they all talk to us . . . a lot. We often get asked, “How did you get your kids to open up to you like they do?” While there are many parenting things we’d do differently if we could (that’s another blog for another time) communication with our kids is one we have few regrets. To this day, our son calls my husband almost daily to talk about anything from golf to work issues. Our daughters call or text me all of the time just to see what I’m doing, send a funny video, or share a problem they’re having. Talking with each other is the norm.  

Okay, now just in case you’re not the type to read an entire blog, I’ll go ahead and throw out the key actions we think have made this open communication possible for our family:

  • Choose to be available.
  • Choose to listen.
  • Choose to ask questions.
  • Choose to do fun things together.

Let’s start with the first action: Choose to be available. It may sound like a simple choice, but it has actually been one of the most sacrificial things I’ve done as a parent. Being available isn’t something you can really schedule, especially with teenagers. It’s often spontaneous and random and will cost you something. It has been our experience that teenagers want to talk at the most inconvenient times, like at 11:30 p.m. when I wanted to be in bed over an hour ago, or in the morning when I’m already ten minutes late leaving the house. It usually cuts into my plans and what I “need” to get done.

It’s in these moments that I have to remind myself of the bigger goal, which is that I want my kids to know I care more about what they need to say than anything else in that moment. Because we’ve chosen to make this the attitude in our home, when we really can’t be available the moment our kids want to talk, we ask, “Hey, can we talk about this at (name a specific time)? What you’re saying is really important to me and I want to be able to give it my full attention.” This choosing to be available began when our kids were just toddlers. Pressing pause from loading the dishwasher to kneel down and make eye contact with your toddler begins laying a foundation of availability, and you can’t have open communication without availability.

Next on the list, choose to listen. The thing that makes this action hard for me is my desire to talk and fix things. I’ve learned that most of the time, teenagers just want to talk and be heard. They don’t want us to say anything, really. One of our kids verbally processes. She thinks out loud, talks it out. We’ve literally had “conversations” where she talked the entire time, I engaged through my eyes and head nods, she came to her own resolution, and then thanked me as she walked away. All I did was listen.

This listening began when our kids were very young. When we put our phones down, look at our preschoolers, and listen with our full attention as they show us something, we’re teaching them that we care about what they have to say. The bug they want to tell us about probably won’t be the most important thing we hear that day, but them believing we care about what they have to say will be. And that’s what we want them to believe when they’re teenagers—that we care about what they have to say.  

If we want our teenagers to open up to us, we have to choose to ask questions. It’s so much easier to just tell my kids what I think they need to know. It would actually save a ton of time. But if I want my kids to be able to think for themselves, if I want to know what they really think and feel, if I want them to open up to me, I have to ask questions. One statement I heard in a sermon 25 years ago has helped me continue to ask questions. A man named Steve Canfield said this, “Statements harden the heart, but questions convict the soul.” What this quote reminds me is that my statements, my talking “at” my children, has the potential to harden their hearts and put them on the defensive. I want their hearts to be soft and open, so I try to lead our conversations with questions.

I saved my favorite for last. Choose to have fun together. Sometimes we don’t need to talk to our teenagers or for them to talk to us. Instead, we need to laugh, have fun, be silly, and just experience some life together that has nothing to do with opening up and having a conversation. When we create fun memories with our children, we’re doing more than filling a family album. We’re becoming a safe place. We’re communicating to our kids that we like them, that we enjoy being with them, that we choose them.

Think about it, the people you tend to open up to are probably the people who make you feel like they like you. They’re probably the people who choose to hang out with you and do fun things with you. We’ve found that to be true with our kids as well. I think they talk to us because they know we truly like them. Fun has a way of building a relationship. I can’t explain it. It just does. And then, every so often, on the drive back home from a theme park or a lake day, it will happen that a kid just begins opening up about what’s on their heart and mind.

Bonus Action: Tuck your kids into bed. Even the teenagers. I’m not kidding. I “tucked” all three of our kids into bed until they went away to college. Now, before you think that’s a bit over the top, hear me out. I didn’t do it because I wanted them to stay babies. I didn’t do it because I loved doing it. If I’m being honest, there were many times I would have rather gone straight to bed or sat in the living room and watched TV with my husband. I chose to tuck my kids in, even if it was nearing midnight after practice and homework, because that’s when they talked the most. It wasn’t weird because it’s what I had always done. Most nights it was a quick prayer and an “I love you.” But then there were those nights—those precious nights—when I got the privilege of sitting on the side of their bed and listening to them pour their heart out.

So, how can you get your high schooler to open up to you? Choose to be available, choose to listen, choose to ask questions, and choose to do fun things together. And go for the bonus action and take a few minutes to tell them goodnight when they go to bed. (That means not going to bed while they stay up and play video games or stare at their phone.) None of these actions are easy. They all require sacrifice on your part as the parent. But keep in mind the bigger goal of having kids who want to open up to you, and it will all be worth it.

One very last thought. Our family has had many people in our circle over the years—other people who our kids open up to when they need to talk to someone. Grandparents, small group leaders, close family friends, and even a licensed counselor. While we parents are pretty awesome, we can’t be everything to everyone, including our children. Yes, we want our kids to know they can always open up to us, but as long as they’re opening up to a trusted adult, that’s what matters most. Our kids know they don’t always have to open up to us. They just need to open up to a trusted someone. We all do.

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