how to get your teenager to talk to you in 842 easy steps

For B, the original walking yard sale. We’ll get through these years together and laugh about it over a drink on the other side. Promise. 


{image is a photo of Katie and me three and a half years ago in Captiva. She is ten. The photo was taken by Brooke and prominently features her thumb.}

I’m sitting with my friend over breakfast. It’s technically a business meeting, but we’ve made quick work of, well, work. And given the fact that both of our lives are a constant race against the clock, true to form, we have eighteen minutes left to say all of the things we want to say.

She talks about her teenaged son. How she feels like she’s losing him. How they never talk anymore and she doesn’t know how to fix it.

“How do you and Katie do it?” she asks. “It seems like she tells you everything.”

I shrug.

“No, seriously,” she says, “there’s go to be something that you do that makes it work. That gets her to talk to you.”

I promise to think about it. And to ask Katie.

I have some ideas of my own, of course. As to why our relationship is what it is. But I want to know hers. I figure my perspective is only half the equation. So that night at home, I ask her.

She shrugs.

I laugh, then say, “No, seriously, let’s think about it.”

She promises she will.

I’m no expert on parenting. The sum total of my experience is my relationship with the two wondrous humans who live in my house, for whose food and clothing and general expenses I pay, and who bear a strikingly resemblance to me. Oh, and whom I love more than life itself. That too. Anyway, the point of this very clumsy disclaimer is simply to say: please don’t think that anything I have to say on this topic is either gospel or that I think it is. It’s simply my truth. So here goes.

As Katie entered the tween years, I was terrified of eleven. At eleven, my relationship with my own mom, as I’m sure she will agree, did something like this ..


Image is a photo of Thelma and Louise driving off the cliff

It wasn’t pretty, and it took a lot of years to get it back on track. And so, as the girls, with Katie leading the way, inched closer to that cliff, I began to scramble for ways to avoid driving off of it. Mostly, I prayed. But along the way, there were some things that emerged as important. In no particular order, here are a few things I learned.

Hang out with your kids when it’s time for bed.

Kids will do ANYTHING to avoid going to bed. Even talk to their mom about their day. I swear. It’s amazing.

Turn the lights out and it gets even better.

And if they ask for a story? Tell one. Make it up. They really don’t care what it is. Katie is a big fan of what she calls my sweary tails. Let’s just say that as they get older and we can, in the privacy of their rooms, take a little more leeway with the words we use, Baby Bear gets pretty saucy when he’s mad. Go ahead and judge if you must, but it’s hilarious. And at an age when it can be pretty easy to become convinced that you’ve lost the ability to make your kid smile no less belly laugh, it’s a pretty $#&@ing awesome way to end the day.

Figure out what they’re interested and then go find out about it.

Even if you happen to find whatever it may be mind-numbingly boring or silly or banal or even somewhat offensive, dig deeper. Find out more. I promise you that there is some morsel of just about anything that is interesting. So talk to your kid about it. If she’s into fashion, take her to the mall. If he’s into dinosaurs, head to the museum of natural history. Fine art? I don’t care if you got a D in Art History, get thee to the MFA and go find a Monet. While the thing itself might not be of interest to you, I can promise you that there is nothing better than seeing your child INSIDE their joy.

Case(s) in point:

I’ve watched 7 of the 8 Harry Potter movies and the 8th is cued up for this weekend. I’ve read Wonder, Out of My Mind, Rules, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, and Lord knows how many other books that Katie has put into my hand with the words, “Mama, I loved this.”

I’ve spent a day in Hogsmeade and an evening in a darkened theater watching Divergent the night it came out, because, well, yeah. I’ve watched countless webisodes (is that a word?) on Katie’s favorite YouTube channels. I’ve downloaded her favorite apps and learned how to play the games she likes so that we could play them together. (For the record, Candy Crush is totally her fault.)

Why? Because doing this stuff is the only way that I’ll know what she’s talking about when she dives into teenspeak. And I can join her in a laugh when a line from a Smosh video (careful on that website, they’re not all kid-appropriate) is just too perfect for the moment. Or at least I’ll know what Smosh is and not assume it’s some new street drug I haven’t heard of.

Another benefit to having at least a vague idea of what’s going on in their worlds? You can get ahead of some really scary stuff – see: Slenderman, the cinnamon challenge, the choking game. The likelihood is that your kid isn’t going to come ask you about this stuff, but trust me, they’re hearing about it.

Talk to them.

No, seriously, YOU talk to THEM.

Tell them stuff. I know they’re your kids, but they’re also, ya know, people with whom you are in a relationship. Wouldn’t you feel really weird confiding everything in someone who never told you anything?

Get the ball rolling.

Want to hear about their fears? Tell them yours (within reason, they’re kids).

Want to know what embarrasses them? Tell them that horrible story about tripping on the edge of the stage and flying head first onto the ground in summer camp when you were twelve. Or that time that you called the wrong John Davis to ask him to the Evergreen dance and you were so completely horrified that you hung up on the poor guy who answered. (For that one you might have to tell them about “white pages.”)

Let them know that it was awful.

And that you survived.

Want them to learn to say, “I’m sorry”? Apologize to them when you screw up. Tell them that you’ll do better now that you know better. And then do.

Want them to trust you? Show them that you trust them.

Want them to respect you?

You get the idea.

Lose the agenda.

Spend a day — or an afternoon or an hour or hell, five minutes  just hanging out.

Don’t force conversation. If they don’t feel like talking, don’t. Just be. Turns out that just being together is sort of awesome. Fringe benefit? If your kid starts to see that hanging out with you can mean something other than interrogation, they won’t pre-emptively clam up or disappear every time you look in their direction.

Take advantage of technology.

We all love to lament the next generation’s overuse of technology, and I’m no exception. But that sword’s got another side. If your kid’s constantly on their phone texting friends and all you can think is Why don’t they TALK to each other, try the flip side … Why don’t you TEXT each other?

Kids are comfortable on text and email and everything in between. Where we’re comfortable, we’re open. So text them. Send them something funny. Or an article you thought they’d like. Ask how their day was. Tell them you love them.

Katie and I don’t text a ton, but we do. She’s a kid who, while social, also desperately needs alone time to recharge. By texting, I can respect her need for solitude and still talk to her. Pretty tricky, ay?

Just no hashtags on text, ever. This, Katie tells me, is a hard and fast rule. Even if you’re doing it ironically and you think it’s really funny. Just no.

One for the grandparents in the crowd — You don’t have to sign your texts, “Love, Grammy.” It’s a text. They know it’s you.

P.S. Mom, I think it’s adorable. Funny, but adorable. 


Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Serious isn’t approachable.

Or fun.

For either of you.

Serious is necessary sometimes, but too serious all the time just sucks.

Laugh at yourself and you’ll laugh together.

See above.

Laugh. A lot. 

Trust me.


{Image is a very silly mother daughter selfie of me and Katie at the beach a couple of weeks ago. And I love it.}

Now, while that list is by no means comprehensive, I’d say that it’s pretty fair to call it my highlight reel.

And now here’s Katie’s.

Find stuff you like to do together.

Oh my God, like watching Walk off the Earth – remember watching that cover of Somebody that I Used to Know with the one guitar for all five people and OhMyGod it was SOOOO good and you totally loved that guy on the end, remember, the one who doesn’t sing and just does the “plink” thing on the guitar? That guy’s awesome. And then the parody of it which is almost even better because the guy does that impression of that guy and then ….

Ed note: I’ll stop there. I trust that you get the point. Do stuff together and then you can talk about how much fun it was when you did that stuff, ya know, together. 

Don’t always try to fix it. Just listen.

Sometimes kids just need to rant. If they don’t actually ask for your advice, don’t offer it. Ask first if they want advice or if they really just want you to listen instead.

Sometimes I just want to rant, rant, rant about whatever, like something at school and this kid who said this about that kid and blah blah, but I’m not looking for advice because it’s not something that I feel responsible for fixing or even that can be fixed. Sometimes I really just need you to say, “Oh, wow, that really sucks.”

Ed note: Methinks this attitude could save lives and that last line could save a lot of marriages. 

Respect your kids.

Don’t treat them like babies. If they come to you with a problem or whatever, even if it doesn’t seem big to you, know that it IS big to them. Like, say, if they tell you they have a crush on somebody, don’t say, “Awwww,” like it’s so cute. It might be cute to you, but it’s really important and maybe even kinda overwhelming to them. Take it seriously.

And know that it’s way more than your words that convey that. Like, if you make a face that says that you totally disapprove of what they just told you, it doesn’t matter if you swear that you’re not judging them. You’ve pretty much already killed it and they’re not going to talk about it anymore because they know you ARE judging.

Ed note: while saying this, she made what she apparently thinks my judgy face looks like. It wasn’t pretty. Point taken, kiddo.

Anyway, if you want your kids to talk to you, just, ya know, treat them like people.

So there you have it, friends. How to get your kid to talk to you. In four words or less: treat them like people.

In two: respect them.


Next week, we’ll be tackling another of life’s great challenges: folding a fitted sheet.*






15 thoughts on “how to get your teenager to talk to you in 842 easy steps

  1. My two favorite things about this post:

    1. The fact that, at her tender age, Katie has figured out nuances of friendship and supportiveness that the large majority of adults I know have yet to actually understand, and that definitely took me close to twenty years to puzzle out.

    2. The fact that she judges you for your compulsive and shameless hashtagging. This is actually my #1 favorite thing. But it worked better as a punchline, not a lead-in, so I’m putting it second. I’m seriously laughing out loud about this. Because I just intuitively know that hashtagging is to you and Katie’s relationship what loud burping, weird walks, and super inept food-ordering in fast-food drive-thru lanes are to me and my Dad’s relationship. Namely, that thing you honestly can’t help doing, but purposefully do more when in public because you know your kid thinks it’s completely embarrassing.

  2. ❤ ❤ ❤ you are both wise and so very funny even when talking about serious stuff (which is half the battle in getting people to listen sometimes, i think!).

    and i'm laughsnoring at you, poor jess, trying to #justsaynotohashtags

    spend time together. listen. respect. ❤ ❤

    and i am SO with katie on the judgey face. the judgey face is so easy to see from the outside!

  3. Love this!

    The “love more than life itself” thing is totally weighing me down now. I LOVE my job. I teach elementary art it’s awesome, but yesterday I came home after my first day of the year away from my almost two year old and once he was in bed just sobbed it’s unbelievable how much you can miss a little person in just 8 hours.

  4. I have an 11 year old step daughter and a 1t year old daughter. And trust me I know how hard those tween years are and well it seems like the years between 11 and 14 are the hardest for girls. I have learned a lot from my girls, my now 15 year old put me thru my paces and now with the 11 year old I have a clue into there world.
    There world is so different but yet the same from when I was there age, somehow my girls have this concept that I was never a teenage girl. Well needless to say my 15 year old has figured out that mom went through the very same things as she is going through now.
    The only advantage she has over me is that she has two of her brother’s at the same high school that she attends.
    And as a mom of 4 of my own and one step daughter the best thing that you can do for those tween years is talk and listen and remember it is okay to make mistakes. They will learn from yours and make a whole bunch of them there self

  5. One thing my teen daughter and I do is change the wallpaper on our laptop on a near daily basis, trying to find pictures that make each other laugh out loud. It is fun finding the pictures, and fun seeing what she thinks is funny. A win/win.

  6. This is awesome! A note on the texting. I have seen so many parents complain and complain about the texting. And I’ve seen friends of mine who have older kids say that is how their kids open up to them. They aren’t looking at you. It’s easier. It’s the equivalent to driving in the car and they don’t have to make eye contact except even better. And the open up to them? Correct! Don’t judge! Yes!!!! And quick story, when my Katie “Zach” started preschool, we wasn’t even three, I went to observe part of a class. I was super worried that there were two teachers and like 24 kids. All of the other preschools had 6:1 ratio or something. Then I sat there and watched them have 24 kids dance their way to craft area, fun, quiet and orderly and fun (yeah I said that twice) and I said to her, how do you get them to do this ? It was a calm, serene, engaging, beautiful setting. This was the most important question of parenting to me…she looked at me and said “I respect them”. And I was confused. My question was how do you get them to do this.? She said “I respect THEM.” It was a huge shift for me. And so true. Good work.

  7. Mom texts me. It’s sort of strangely endearing, like letters with more abbreviations (more than I or my friends use). Reading her texts feels like code breaking, but I appreciate gesture. I can see she’s trying, even when things are hard.

  8. This is such a great post, by both of you. My kids are not very chatty about the “important” things, but maybe the point is that it’s all important.

  9. Thank you for the reminder. I need to remember that my kid’s interests are just as important as my own, even if they are very much not my thing.

  10. That title made me laugh out loud! Wonderful! My blog asks people to send in advice they’d give to their 13 year old self or the advice they wish their own 13 year old/teen would listen to. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this after reading your article! Jess x

  11. Wow. Thank you for writing this…. My mother and I do not have a good relationship at all, and I want to be there for my (future) children. My mom is famous for her “judgey” face… So I just don’t tell her things anymore. She doesn’t even try to pretend she’s interested in what I have to say. I’ll be talking about what I learned in nursing school, and she’ll say “Oh I knew that already. But you should be a communications major like I was. You would like it more.” She doesn’t care what I think… She’s always right, and she has never ever apologized for being wrong. Reading this article made me cry because I have always wondered what it would be like if my mom and I got along…

  12. Thank you so much for sharing this…my tween/teenager/young adult years with my mom were similar to what you posted…as I started to have children. ..I vowed to myself that we would have a better relationship. …one that is open & loving…where we can be friends. ..but know I’m still mom…& the biggest part of all of this is…show them respect…treat them like the young adult they are becoming. …I truly treasure the relationship I have with all of my kiddo’s…20, 15 & 12…the 2 older ones are girl’s & the 12 is a boy…they all know they can come & talk to me about anything & that there is no “dumb” ?…some of their friends feel comfortable enough around us also…that they have opened up & confided in us…

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