Teenagers are notoriously moody and considering the events of the past 15 months, can you really blame ‘em? But it’s especially in light of recent events (virtual learning, canceled proms, limited interaction with friends, the list goes on and on) that parents should check in with adolescents about how they’re feeling. There’s just one problem—every time you ask your kid how their day was, they clam up. That’s why we reached out to the experts to get their advice.
But before we get into what to say (and not say) to your teen, get the setting right. Because if you want your kid to share something (anything!) about their day, you’re going to need to take the pressure off.
“After having worked with teenagers for many, many years, I can say that the single best way for parents to get their teens to open up to them isn’t through saying anything specific, but rather through engaging in activities with them,” therapist Amanda Stemen tells us. “This allows conversation to flow naturally.”
3 therapist-approved ways to take the pressure off
- In the car. “Let them choose the music/podcast when they get in the car,” advises says therapist Jacqueline Ravelo. “When you give your teenager the opportunity to choose the music, you’re doing a few things. 1. You’re putting them at ease. 2. You’re taking any potential defiance out of the equation because they are making a choice and 3. You’re letting them know that their choices/taste in music/opinion matters. You can still put in a boundary, like ‘no cursing’ or ‘no violent lyrics’ (especially if there are younger siblings around) but by letting your teen choose the music, you are giving them a moment to be able to relax and they will be more receptive to opening up to you.”
- While watching TV. Per family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, one of the best ways to connect with your kid is to enjoy a film with them. “Watching a movie of their choosing with them and then talking about it over a bowl of ice cream might be far more comfortable than being grilled about their relationship status or how they are feeling about their future,” she says.
- While going for a walk. “Instead of having the conversation immediately after school, have it on a walk or as they are getting ready for bed,” suggests child psychologist Tamara Glen Soles, PhD. Walking side-by-side or sitting next to your teen in their bed means that you aren’t directly looking each other in the eyes. This often makes it easier for teens to open up and be vulnerable.”
- During an activity of their choosing. “Make sure to choose activities your teen is already interested in. It's even better if you both enjoy them, but definitely make sure they do,” says Stemen.
And what do I say?
You’re asking your teen how their day was because you genuinely want to know. Except the only response you ever get is an “OK” (or if you’re lucky, “fine”). And that’s it—what was meant to be an open-ended conversation starter quickly becomes a dead end. Worse still, if you ask this question on the regular then your teenager probably assumes that this is just a routine check-in, rather than an attempt to find out what’s actually going on inside their head. The solution? Choose an appropriate time and place (see notes above) and then get specific.
“Instead of ‘how was your day’, ask specific questions such as ‘what’s something that was unexpected or surprised you today?’ or ‘what’s something that challenged you today?’” says Soles. “The more specific the question, the more likely you will get an answer,” she adds. Here’s another question that she likes: ‘What something that made you feel like I’ve got this?’
Ravelo agrees that specificity is key. “By asking really rich, high quality questions, like ‘what was your favorite part of today?’ or ‘what was the most challenging thing that happened at school?’ you’re opening up a dialogue that goes beyond a one-word answer and gives you the opportunity to explore further with your child,” the therapist explains. “You can continue the conversation by asking follow up questions like, ‘what was that like for you?’ or ‘what didn’t you like about that’ to keep the conversation going and give your teen an opportunity to naturally share what they are feeling.
Final word of advice: Mix it up—don’t ask all of the questions all the time. Pick one or two each day and don’t force it.