Many parents recognize that guiding their teens and keeping them safe can include monitoring their whereabouts, knowing about their after-school activities, and maybe even tracking cell phone usage. This kind of parental monitoring is easier than ever with today’s technology. Researchers used to think that this kind of monitoring was the most important way that parents could help teens develop in healthy ways and avoid risky behaviors.
Actually, it’s a great start, but not enough to predict lower conduct problems. Recent research by Kerr and associates in the Journal of Research on Adolescence found that the most important protective factor is teen disclosure—in other words, teens voluntarily providing their parent with personal information about their life, their thoughts, and their experiences. This capacity for a healthy level of disclosure is an important life skill, but can be tricky for parents to encourage since teens might resist the direct approach (e.g.,“So how are things going for you?”) and respond with a shrug or surface answer.
Here are five tips on refining your approach to encourage your teen to more regularly share key information with you:
1. Create safe family spaces
In the quick intersections during the day when paths are crossing, schedules are demanding, and stress levels are high, great discussions with teens probably won’t happen. To really talk about what matters to them personally, many teens need time to warm up to situations and to experience comfortable environments where they feel close to their families in order to open up.
Dinner time, for example, might be a time to catch up on the latest in one another’s lives, but if this also tends to be a time when conflict arises, criticism is leveled, or unmet expectations are discussed (e.g., the missed quiz, the poor grade, etc.), then this family gathering is no longer a “safe space.” Intentionally create safe spaces. You might have a family outing, spend time at an amusement park, or go to a sporting event, but if the emotional space during those family times is not friendly or inviting, teens may have fun, but never really become vulnerable with their family members or talk to them privately about what matters to them.
2. Read the weather.
Cloudy, stormy, or calm forecasts of the weather are signs that a jacket or umbrella might be needed when we leave the house. Teens also have emotional swings that, like the weather, we can observe and then respond to in sensitive ways. Teens can be temperamental, closed, and sometimes hard to reach. Insisting on disclosure during dark moods might create more conflict than conversation.
Sometimes teens like a little time to cool off or think through a problem before they share it. Sometimes, they would rather talk it through with their peers first. Accept these facts like you accept the weather—but watch for the calm moments, the open opportunities and make yourself available when the weather is “sunny.” Put down your phone, set aside less necessary chores, and do something spontaneous, like going out for ice cream. Keep your expectations low, engage in chit-chat a first, but look for ways to ask about more serious concerns as the teen opens the door.
3. Be supportive and accepting.
Research finds that the best combination for helping teens learn to be responsible is high, but realistic expectations along with unconditional, steady love and support. In the process of navigating their teenage years, mistakes will inevitably be made. Mishaps will happen--but those teens who know they will be loved despite these mess-ups will be more likely to come to parents and discuss their problems and seek help.
If teens feel they will be quickly dismissed, criticized, or unfairly judged, they will be more likely to keep concerns and problems hidden. So, take time to listen before forming a judgement about the situation. Really listen with a desire to understand their perspective, recognizing that your first impressions might be wrong. Be patient, ask questions, and then listen again. Help your teen recognize that you don’t see them as a problem, but that you see them as a person and hope they will trust you as a resource for addressing their issue. A hug, an expression of sympathy and concern, or a follow-up note to express your love can help the teen feel understood and accepted after they have said something that was hard for them to admit.
4. Choose to compromise where possible.
Keeping reasonable standards for what is acceptable and what is not is one way that parents help teens grow to be responsible, independent, and self-motivated. While some of these standards or house rules are non-negotiable, compromises concerning details might be a better choice where you can be flexible. Making these adjustments shows them you care about their specific needs and challenges. For example, Saturday chores could be rescheduled for another time in the week to accommodate the weekend soccer tournament or a lower-than-A grade in a subject where a teen struggles but did their best might be recognized for the achievement it is.
After all, sometimes your teen’s suggestions might make better sense than your original decision. Since you want your child to learn to make good judgements, look at all angles, and find solutions, these areas of compromise can help you to invite them to take an active part in the conversations you have with them. They do not need to find a brick wall (e.g., “I said no, and I mean no”) or no barrier at all (e.g., “I don’t care—do whatever you want). Rather, they need a fence line with some gates. When it is reasonable, let them move outside of what is typically expected, but maintain the fence most of the time, keeping them within wide, but safe boundaries.
Including your teen in decisions that pertain to them builds trust and reciprocity between parent and child. With this trust, they will be more likely to disclose to you their feelings as they will feel respected in the relationship.
5. Understand your child’s temperament.
One mother reported that her best talks with her teenage son were in the car. She soon realized that his shy personality made eye contact difficult during the discussion of touchy subjects even though they had a good relationship, and he was often willing to open up to her. She conveniently invited him on a variety of different errands without other family members to give him more space to talk with her about his life and his concerns. He did not feel pressure and they did not always have deep talks during those car rides, but often enough, he shared what was on his mind.
So, pay attention to the times when you have had your best talks with a particular teen—were those at midnight after a date, over a soda during a crazy day of errands, after a big test or competition, or during a holiday celebration? Treasure those moments and try to replicate them when you can. Maybe the repertoire of places and situations will start to multiply once the teen knows you are ready and open to talk, but equally willing to respect their space and silence when they are processing difficult emotions or confronting serious challenges.
No need to be jealous that they may choose to talk with their friends about some things more than they choose to talk to you. Recognize that parents and peers play different roles in the teen’s disclosure patterns. Peers might be the quick “go-to’s” with all the nitty-gritty details. The important point here is that teens do not need parents to do what peers do; they need parents who will listen first and who are willing to sprinkle in good guidance with sensitivity and encouragement. Parents can expand their influence as teens trust them more, so knowing their
whereabouts is a great start, but finding out where they are emotionally may be the best safeguard you can put in place for helping teens to avoid risky behavior and grow in healthy ways.