Parenting

10 Expert Tips You Didn't Know About Getting Your Teenager To Open Up

Family dinners will never be the same.
08/17/2015 12:00am ET | Updated December 6, 2017

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“The days are long but the years are short.”

Whoever said it first deserves a high five because -- yep -- that sums parenting up in a nutshell.

And the days are particularly long in the beginning; while the years are particularly short once your “child” approaches adulthood -- otherwise known as the teenage years. That said, if you have a teenager at home, you have probably already decided that you want to make the most of the moments you have with your son or daughter living under your roof. But how? In partnership with Dixie, we focused on quality time at the dinner table. How can we make the most of family dinner -- be it on a Saturday or the middle of the week?

We sought out the advice of a wide variety of experts, including psychologists, professional communicators and public speakers. We interviewed human resources professionals and authors. And we spoke with teenagers for tips on how they thought parents could better engage with them at dinner. Their answers -- sensible and simple to try -- didn’t disappoint. Now, it’s your turn: Take a look and let us know what you think. And happy talking!

1. Keep dinner low-key and casual. “If you do one big, important family dinner each week, a teen will check out, because it's too much pressure to talk. If you have casual, thrown-together meals each night, for whoever is home, the kids will let down their guard,” offered the author, advice columnist, blogger and entrepreneur Penelope Trunk. “This is backed by research -- people show more of their authentic selves during a casual, unofficial interview than a formal, at-the-table interview.”

2. Don’t play detective. “Every time they casually share information, don’t jump on it and start pumping them for more. They walked home with a friend? Smile, say ‘sounds fun,’ and ask them if they want more mashed potatoes,” advised Nancy Darling, professor of psychology at Oberlin College, who writes the “Thinking About Kids” blog for Psychology Today. “Do NOT ask how long they’ve known them, what their parents are like, or push a get-together over the weekend.”

3. Let your teen lead. “My parents used to want to talk about what we were all grateful for every night at dinner. It was OK at first, but [at the time] I was struggling in middle school, I was tired at the end of the day, and my selfish teenage brain was only grateful for not being at school any longer,” said 15-year-old Finn from Sumner, Washington. “Eventually I asked if we could stop doing it. So we started talking about current events. Talking about the news is way better than being grilled about my day or telling them I am ‘thankful for this pork chop.’ And I really am thankful. Just not right after a day of school.”

4. Watch your tongue. “Avoid judging, criticism and sarcasm. Find something you can understand or affirm in the teen’s point of view and acknowledge that before offering alternative points of view,” suggested Christy Buchanan, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University who specializes in adult-adolescent relationships. “And listen ... carefully. No one -- of any age -- enjoys a conversation partner who doesn't listen!”

5. Show interest in their interests. “Discovering common interests can build trust and show support. … It might involve listening to a new song, trying a new food or watching a new television show,” said Sharlyn Lauby, an author and consultant who blogs at HR Bartender.

6. Avoid should-ing them. “Parents often get dragged into problem-solving, lecturing and criticizing their teens. Strike ‘should’s from your responses, listen and reflect back with a validation: a simple ‘It makes sense that … ’ or ‘I can see how you would feel … ,’” the child and adolescent psychologist Keegan Tangeman advised. “The behavior makes sense to the teen -- your job is to figure out why and convey that you understand this.”

7. Don’t just take information. Give, too. “Start talking about your own day -- things you enjoyed, something funny that happened at lunch, a movie you loved, a great meme you thought was funny on Facebook. And while you're still laughing, ask them about their favorite YouTube video,” Nancy Darling, the Oberlin professor, suggested.

8. Be supportive. “As a teenager, life is harder than what shoes to wear to prom. Sometimes parents forget that teens have a lot of school, social and mental pressure on them,” said Morgan, a 20-year-old college student and the blogger behind The Enthusiast. “Sometimes the best way to get them to talk is just to let teens know parents will be there for them no matter what … Teens just want to know they've got someone on their side.”

9. Be sincere. “Notice and acknowledge the good -- sincerely. Share parental concerns, values, and expectations -- sincerely. Teens -- like all humans -- are not ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’ It is important that parents communicate pride and appreciation when teens are working hard, being kind and behaving responsibly. It is also important that parents address concerns if teens are behaving in unhealthy, unkind or irresponsible ways,” offered Christy Buchanan, the Wake Forest University, professor.

10. And keep at it. “Persistence is the final secret. If your kids think they can get away with ‘fine’ and you'll leave them alone, then that's all you'll ever hear. If they realize that you'll just keep asking, they'll learn to have a short conversation,” said Kevin Kruse who is an author, speaker, expert on employee engagement and -- most importantly -- a father of three teenagers. “And you never know … eventually they might even ask you how YOUR day is going.”

Dixie has been giving families quality time together for more than a hundred years. Dixie takes the fussing out of meal time so that you can be present with your loved ones.