Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
Getting teens to open up is one of the biggest challenges, parents say
Some moms use humor and spontaneity to deal with topics such as sex
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is they do all the talking, said a parenting expert
"You can't wait until your kids are teenagers ... to work on the relationship," said one mom
They roll their eyes, walk away in a huff, shout “Mom, you don’t know what you are talking about” and then slam the bedroom door – symbolizing the end to any hope of a conversation.
“Teenagers!” parents complain. “Wake me up when they’re in college.”
As a parent of two girls who will be teens all too soon, I admit I’m more than slightly freaked. But after talking with parents and experts around the country, it appears you can achieve what might seem like the unthinkable – getting your teen to actually want to talk to you, even about the hard stuff.
Uneeka Jay, a mom of five in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, relies on humor and spontaneity. For instance, when her 15-year-old son Shawn comes to the kitchen for a snack, that might be the exact moment she asks him, “You ever have sex?” out of the blue.
“It’s really weird,” the high school freshman and basketball star said during a conversation at his family’s home, although he admitted he doesn’t feel as uncomfortable after the fact.
As a former teenage mom who grew up in a household where sex was never discussed, Jay makes sure her children know she is open to talking about sex as well as drugs, alcohol, bullying – you name it – and that she tries to keep it “light” whenever she can.
“We’re joking, but then sometimes I’ve found that conversation becomes serious later where they come back and say, ‘Well, hey, this happened or this occurred and I want to talk about it,’” said Jay, a vice president of customer operations for a mobile health services company and the founder of her own company focusing on empowering women and businesses.
‘My parents, they’ve got it going on’
Vicki Hoefle, author of the book “Duct Tape Parenting,” said when parents show they aren’t afraid to tackle any subject – and are willing to showcase their own vulnerabilities, teenagers take notice.
“I think a fearlessness, a fierceness to attack all those scary conversations with the kind of zest that you see in teens makes teens look at their parents like, ‘Oh my god. My parents, they’ve got it going on,’” said Hoefle, a mom of five who has spent the past two decades working with families on parenting.
Tracey Koch, a mom of two, ages 10 and 14, and a nurse practitioner who works with teens, said she finds being candid with her patients and her own children about the mistakes we all make leads to more trust.
“I find that once you confess to also being imperfect, it levels the playing field and teens may feel it’s safe to open up,” said Koch of Lewiston, Idaho, in a response to a request for comment on CNN’s Facebook page. “I tell my children that this is my first experience at raising children and parenting and I am bound to make mistakes.”
The mistakes parents make
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not being honest with themselves about how strongly they already feel about topics such as teens engaging in sex, driving, and using drugs and alcohol, said Hoefle.
If your teen thinks, “I already know what my mom will say about this, so I’m not even going to talk to her,” you can forget about your teen opening up to you, she said.
Delia Perez, a mom of two boys ages 9 and 13, said she sometimes has to hold her breath.
“When we talk, I sometimes have to put on my poker face because the overprotective mother wants to emerge and scream ‘What the hell?’” said Perez, also in response to our query on Facebook. “My husband and I always try to put ourselves in their position (and) remember when we were their age.”
Michelle Staruiala, a mom of three in Saskatchewan, Canada, follows the same advice with her three children, ages 13, 15 and 23.
“I don’t judge or make them feel stupid when they have tough questions,” she said. “We all know growing up isn’t always easy.”
‘Put duct tape over your mouth’
The second grave error parents make, Hoefle said, is we talk too much. We need to, quite simply, shut up, and maybe “put duct tape over” our mouths.
“It’s like, Oh my god, do you just have to be so smart all the time? Can’t you give your kid a chance to be the smartest one in the room? And there’s an attitude about stepping back and allowing your child to be the star in the show. That’s what secures you a place in the next conversation.”
Kelli Caprine, a mom of four in Santa Clarita, California, said to get teens to want to talk to you, you have to refrain from telling them what to do at every turn.
“That would turn my kids off right away. So I would have to just listen and then say, ‘Would you like advice?’”
Hoefle strongly encourages parents to take on the mindset of a scientist and ask a “series of open-ended questions” to encourage their teen to open up.
How and where to have the talk
Equally important, said Hoefle, is understanding how your teens like to communicate – whether it be while cooking dinner, driving in the car or in a quiet place with zero distractions.
“How to set up the environment that best supports your child is really important,” she said.
Stephanie True Fix, a mom of two in South Portland, Maine, said quick car trips tend to be a successful way to get a little bit of information from her children.
“Teenagers may call that a trap, but I call it parental opportunity,” said the single mom of two teenagers.
For Carolyn Austin-Haase, a mom of four ages 16 to 26 in Princess Anne, Maryland, the dinner table has been the best place to get her children to unload.
“We have talked about everything under the sun,” she said. “Sex, penises, pubic hair, bowel movements, periods, drugs, masturbating, pregnancy, birth control. Our dinner table is not for the faint of heart.”
What just about every parent I spoke with and parenting expert Vicki Hoefle stress is that parents need to start early – well ahead of the teen years.
“You can’t wait until your kids are teenagers and quit talking to you to work on the relationship,” said Austin-Haase. “It must be done early on.”