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Nonversations: When talking to your teen is one-sided

By Vanessa Van Petten, Special to CNN
Most of the time parents are trying to engage their teens or tweens in conversation, it becomes a "nonversation."
Most of the time parents are trying to engage their teens or tweens in conversation, it becomes a "nonversation."
  • Nonversation: Topics lack meaning and nothing is really being shared
  • Author: Ask your teen what times of day they typically feel like talking and don't
  • If parents ask the right questions and avoid device competition, communication happens
  • Family
  • Parenting
  • Teenagers

Editor's note: Vanessa Van Petten is an author who writes on parenting and adolescents on the blog Her next book, "Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I'm Grounded?" comes out in September.

(CNN) -- Do you ever feel like conversing with your teen is like talking to a slouching, eye-rolling, well-coiffed mute? If so, you are not alone.

Mom of three, Gabby Long laments, "Sometimes when my son gets in the car on the way home from school and we try to talk. It's really just me asking him a string of questions and getting one-word responses. Actually, on a bad day, I am lucky if I get a monosyllabic grunt."

Many parents can commiserate with Gabby and frequently have their own one-way conversations with their children. Most of the time parents are trying to engage their teens or tweens in conversation, but the discussion is one-sided.

This is only inflamed when family discussions end up being about logistics or unimportant issues like weekend schedules or meals. I call this typical parenting communication trap a "nonversation."

What is being said not only lacks meaning, but also nothing is really being shared between the participants. In this way, both parties leave the nonversation feeling empty, frustrated and alone.

In the points below, parents can see why this is happening and how to address it.

Problem: Kids feel badgered.

Cause: Teens often confuse a parent's general interest in their well-being as another way of nagging them.

Solution: Every child has a different rhythm. Some kids are very talkative after school but fall silent at meals. Others are usually at their surliest after sports practice but warm up after homework is done.

Ask your teens what times of the day they typically feel like talking and which times are, what I like to call, "no-go-zones."

That way if parents know their kids are in no-go-zones until they get their after-school snack, they can simply listen to music in the car ride home and have a much better conversation when their child is ready.

Problem: Unfortunately, kids nowadays would rather be (and are more comfortable with) communicating through devices.

Cause: According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of 12-to-17-year-olds have cell phones.

In the car on the way home from school, when dad stops by his child's bedroom and even at the dinner table, parents are competing with iPod music, texting and Facebook updates when they are trying to engage their already engaged teenager.

Solution: Technology is blurring the traditional lines between home, school and social life. If parents can help bring these lines back into the home, they will have an easier time not only connecting with their teenager, but also engaging them in the offline world.

Parents can do this by creating no-technology areas in the home -- the dining room or dinner table, for example, and having nonelectronic times where kids can do whatever they want but it cannot be on a device.

Problem: Parents aren't asking the right questions.

Cause: Kids and teens often say that they want to communicate with their parents, but feel like they do not even know where to start.

Solution: There are some great ice-breakers parents can regularly use with teens. For example, having everyone at the dinner table rate their day on a scale of 1 to 10 and then tell the group the oddest thing that happened to them that day is a great nightly discussion starter.

Parents will find that teens begin to save ideas for the "weirdest moment" question.

So how do you make a nonversation a conversation? If parents ask the right questions during their child's natural talkative times and avoid competition with devices, the communication lines will open up.

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