Making Space for Teens to Talk

It can be hard to get teenagers to talk freely. We look at some strategies to help ease them into conversation

We've all heard the groans from parents of teens - how hard it is to parent a teen; how they make our lives difficult; how we need to just "grin and bear it" during this stage of development.

Being a parent of a teen is different from being the parent of a baby, toddler or primary school-age child. Just as we get used to the challenges of early years, we now need to learn even more-and-different parenting skills.

It's good to remember that amongst the lows, teens can be interesting, intelligent, funny, and affectionate. But they are also facing some major challenges in their lives that may affect how much we see of those positive qualities. These changes include:

  • Rapidly changing bodies
  • Often increasing pressures in terms of school work and participation in a variety of activities
  • Facing constant pressure to know what they want to do after school. Who knows that at 16 or 17 (or for some of us 45?!)
  • New and changing relationships with friends and significant others
  • The all-pervading always-on and perfectionist pressures of tech culture

Most Important

These fledgling adults continue to need our love, closeness, appreciation and interest in their lives, especially during these potentially turbulent years. While they may not openly show it, our teenagers want us in their lives and need our support and caring to help figure out the many new challenges they are facing.

One of the best things we can do is be available when our teens want to talk and holiday periods can be a good time to have non-pressured conversations about important stuff, but also about just nothing - these types of chats are important too.

'Hang Out' Together

These times may be inconvenient and may occasionally mean staying up late at night or hanging out for long periods before they will start to talk. Staying up late with a teen communicates that we are sometimes willing to do things their way. 'Hanging out' for a while in their room or their chosen safe space allows a teen to remember we care and are connected. Connection helps open up the way for conversation.

Play Their Games

Plopping yourself down on your child's bed with your own book and listening to his music may at first elicit exasperation, but asking some questions about their favourite musical artists, may help them start to open up. Or it may mean watching TV or playing video games together. This is not the time to ask probing questions, but just to listen, be around, and let them decide when and if they want to talk.

Walk and Talk

Some parents of teens find that car rides and walks are a good time for this. Not being face-to-face may well help the talking to come. Conversations often start with more trivial content and move to more serious. Remember to ask open questions and listen to their opinions. Notice the moments that seem to be most conducive to talking and periodically try to subtly re-create these kinds of environments.


A frequent parental complaint is a lack of respect from their teens, but we often don't model respect towards them. When there is something that we must discuss with our teen that really can't wait, don't spring it on them-set up a time to talk. "I really need to talk to you about how we are going to handle scheduling use of the car. Can you talk tomorrow at 6?" Try to manage them in a respectful way.

The Parental Punch Bag

Not literally obviously, but parents are often the target of teen frustrations. When teens (and younger children) feel comfortable, they may focus their frustrations on you. It is worth trying to listen through this, not argue, and remember that they are reaching for you because they trust you and need some help. It's important for them to be able to verbally vent on people they trust will always be there for them and support like this will generally help build your relationship and result in you being closer on the other side of the talk.

Say Sorry

If you get it wrong (and we all will at various points!) it's important to own your mistakes and not be afraid to apologise. Your teens will appreciate the openness and it models a good example for admitting they are wrong when they subsequently make their own mistakes.

Space to Grow

When our teens do open up, try to give them space to think for themselves. Remember they aren't going to do everything the way we did it, nor the way we think they should. We didn't do that with our parents either. We can listen, support and set limits and sensible boundaries. We can ask for their thoughts and opinions and not always assume we know more.

While there are certainly challenges to this parenting period, try to think of it as a new, exciting challenge to figure out. Much as it goes against many of our natural instincts, try to listen more than talk and tell. Our teens care about us and whether they articulate it or not, they want us close and want to feel they are being heard.