How to start conversations with teenagers

Adolescence is a time for big feelings, significant challenges and transitions. In addition, COVID-19 has brought with it a whole new batch of complexities such as: Will we go into another lockdown? Why can’t I see my friends yet? Will we get sick? Will life go back to normal? Talking with teens about their concerns and experiences can help them cope, but...

Adolescence is a time for big feelings, significant challenges and transitions. In addition, COVID-19 has brought with it a whole new batch of complexities such as: 

  • Will we go into another lockdown? 
  • Why can’t I see my friends yet? 
  • Will we get sick? 
  • Will life go back to normal?  

Talking with teens about their concerns and experiences can help them cope, but how do you start these conversations? And what do you do if they don’t want to talk? 

Key point: The purpose of these conversations is to show understanding, empathy and provide acknowledgement of a young person’s experiences. Giving a teenager space to offload can help them feel lighter. The goal is not about solving problems, perfect parenting or advice – so take the pressure off yourself! 

Try using these tips to help talk to teens, but don’t be discouraged if they aren’t initially keen to talk.  Sometimes these discussions work better as small, ongoing chats rather than one big one. Once they can see you are curious, caring and wanting to help, they will gradually open up.  

Here are some key tips that may help you when starting conversations with teens 
  • Don’t wait for young people to ask questions or reach out. Raise discussions yourself so that they know they can talk to you. Be open about your own experiences, in doing so, teens are more likely to be open and honest if you are doing the same.  
  • Choose your timing – preferably when you are naturally together anyway in a relaxed setting, rather than setting up a stressful, anxiety provoking meeting. Side by side chats work well (e.g. while driving, walking, doing an activity together like a chore or jigsaw) 
  • Be calm, prepared and genuinely ready to give your time and attention 
  • Listen in a nonjudgmental and curious way. Ask, don’t assume! Remember that this is a chance for teens to talk through their feelings, not for you to fix their problems. 
  • Acknowledge and validate their feelings. Don’t minimize their concerns or fears. Whilst they may seem trivial to you, they are real for teenagers and part of their current experience. Try to understand the importance of what is going on, and the impact for them. Reassure them that whatever they are feeling is okay.  
  • Leading relationship research tells us that ‘understanding must precede advice’. Premature problem solving tends to shut people down. Solution finding should only begin once you feel you understand what your teen is going through, and your teen feels understood  
  • Remember that you do not need to have all of the answers. Trust that teens can help you find them. Ask young people questions like ‘what do you need?’, ‘what do you think would help?’, ‘how can I support you better?’, ‘what would make this easier for you?’. Then together you can come up with an action plan.  
  • Remember: 
    • Be curious about what teenagers are going through (it may be different to what you thought)  
    • Validate their feelings even if you can’t fix them. 
    • Discuss where they are getting their information from – like everyone, teens are bombarded with information but not all of it will be accurate or useful.
What if they won’t talk? 
  • Despite your best efforts, some teens remain silent when faced with questions involving feelings and vulnerability 
  • Instead, try lighter questions. E.g. What would your perfect day look like? The answer to this may give you insights into what they are wanting. 
  • As a parent, set aside time each day to talk to your teen. Ask open ended questions about various topics, this lets them know they can talk if they want to even if they choose not to.
  • Some teens are more open to talking via other media, such as text message or snapchat.  
  • Remind them of the other adults in their life they can talk to. It is important for teens to have a variety of trusted adults for them to access for support when needed  
  • If they still won’t talk, don’t push it. Let them know you are there but don’t try to force conversation. Young people may need space to process how they are feeling before communicating.
  • Ensure the teenagers in your life have the contact details for support services such as Lifeline, Kids Helpline and Headspace. These services offer 24/7 support and can be accessed via phone, online and text. Normalise and encourage the use of these services. Teens do not have to be in ‘crisis’ to access professional supports.  
Some conversation starters that might help: 
  • Learning from home has been…. 
  • One thing that made me laugh this week is… 
  • Best thing I ate this week is….
  • Going back to school, I am most looking forward to…
  • If I had a super power it would be… 
  • What is your perfect holiday?