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How to Increase Dialogue by Focusing on Everyday Conversations


While it is easy to see that building good relationships relies on dialogue, making that a reality can be difficult when children move into adolescence because their communication style is part of the suite of changes that occur.

Most commonly, they either become secretive and monosyllabic and any attempt at conversation is stifled by grunts, harrumphs, or if words are used, they are a weaponised question: “What’s this, what do you want now?”

Alternately, the teen is incessantly chatty where there may be many words used, often of a seemingly foreign language, but not much sense is made.

Talk, Don’t Just Communicate

The result of either of these is that conversation, the bedrock of dialogue, dries up between parents and their teens. Instead of conversing frequently and easily about many things, parents fall into the pattern of only talking to their teens when they have something important to communicate to them. To tell them about what they need to do tomorrow, should have done yesterday, or shouldn’t have done today.

To overcome this, you need to practice talking to your teens the way they talk to “normal people”, to talk to them about things of everyday life and so forth, things of common interest and so forth. This lays a foundation for casual and frequent conversation. When you make the effort to talk to your children about things beyond what they did in school today, what they need to do at music practice, or how they really ought to clean their rooms, you achieve some very important outcomes.

Some of you have tried this without success. Day after day you have this conversation:

“How was your day”

“All right”

“What did you?”


“You were there for 6 hours, you must have done something?”

“Just stuff”

“What sort of stuff”


Long silence

You have experimented with dipping into their entertainment – music, movies, influencers, etc. – to find conversation starters, only to fail miserably, being derisively dismissed by getting it totally wrong (like when I called Smashing Pumpkins Broken Watermelons when trying to sound relevant to my 13-year-old daughter.)

You have tried to enforce family meals being taken at the table together, only to have the mood go cold faster than the food.

If this is where you find yourself, then there is little method that might help: Gossip. Gossip with your children. This is not to say you seek salacious information to share about their friends and peers, rather, you make third parties the focus. Instead of asking your daughter, “How was your day?” you ask, “How is your friend Wendy, I haven’t seen her in a while”.

If your daughter’s reply is something scandalous, it is time to change the subject! But far more commonly, it will be along the lines of, “She plays soccer now, so I don’t see her much”, or “She’s moved to another school”, or, “She’s turned mean, and I hate her”. Suddenly, from this child from whom you’ve recently had only had grunts, you’ll now get sentences.

Another element to consider in normalising conversation with teens has to do with the kinds of topics you choose for casual conversation. Many parents chat with their children in a different way than they do with their peers. Casual conversations between parents and teens tend only to happen when the parents have something nice to talk about: the good things that have happened today, the positive expectations for tomorrow. Casual conversations with adult peers, on the other hand, tend to be dominated by trivialities like sports and politics or by anxieties, fears, concerns, and worries.

The result of only sharing your perfection with your children and your frailty with your friends is that your children will not find it easy to be empathetic, or even understanding, when you are frail.

This scenario may be familiar to you: You have one of those horrible days at work, the boss has been bad and the clients worse. You fight the traffic home, clear the letterbox because no one else ever does, and all you have received are bills. You walk into the house and every light is on, the air-conditioning is at full blast, set to 22 degrees even though it is a balmy 23 outside. The kitchen shows no signs of meal preparation, just the detritus of teenage after-school snacking on the benches, sink and floor.

You don’t want to dump this on your teens because they are just kids, so you pretend everything is all right. Your kids will see right through this, but they won’t blame your horrible day, they will just mutter amongst themselves, saying, “Watch out, mum’s all hormonal again”.

Instead, try a little honesty and say to your kids “I’ve had a bad day, be gentle with me”. There is little guarantee that you will be overwhelmed with sympathy and offers of help, but if you are consistent with this, and are sure to equally share being genuinely joyous, over time you will set patterns of open, two-way conversation.

Conversation about the trivial and the ordinary, and even the baring of our frailty, lets your teenagers know that you value their listening and enjoy their company. When you spend time in casual conversation, where there are no emotional undertones or hidden agendas, you are creating the tools that make real dialogue work.

You are creating familiar patterns of conversation that are templates for when important things need not be shared.

You are establishing a common vocabulary so that you and your teens have a familiar set of words to access that have the same meaning to each of you.

You are learning to read each other’s body language and understand the qualification that intonation and posture bring to words

More than all of these, you learn to be comfortable with silence so there is not an urgency to fill the spaces in your teen’s conversation with your own words. These spaces are critically important to thought processing and proof of listening, especially with teens who will often struggle to find the right words, and the right direction for their argument, and will need silence to formulate them.

Listen, Don’t Lecture

It is self-evident: if you want to be able to talk WITH your teenagers you must resist the temptation to talk AT them. But beyond that, you must actively discipline yourself to listen to them. This is made very difficult by the fact that teenagers frequently don’t talk to their parents, and when they do talk, they talk dribble, and when they don’t talk dribble, they use a language you don’t understand. Is this a mission impossible?

There are some teenagers who happily chat to their parents about everything. If you have one of these, give thanks. The other 90% have busy social calendars, and personal secrets they want to protect. Talking to a parent is the lowest rung on the ladder of their social priorities.

With these kids, the most successful strategy is to find something the child cannot do without you and make it happen regularly. It may be monthly breakfast at McDonalds on a school day, or horse riding in the hills, or shopping in THE place, or surfing and skiing trips. The key here is to make the focus the event, not the conversation you hope will arise. This is not the time to talk to the teen about what he hasn’t done, or what she should do. It is the time to enjoy the meal or the experience in a silence that is interrupted by comments and questions about the décor, the weather, or the badly behaved children on the playground.

I have a friend who was a youth worker, and what I have described here is a simple youth work technique. When Tim’s daughter hit high school he thought to himself, “If this works for me with other kids, it should work for mine”.

On Jenny’s first Wednesday at high school, Tim turned up at lunchtime, found her at her classroom and said, “Jenny, I’m taking you to lunch”.

She replied, sheepishly, “It’s OK Dad, Mum sent stuff.”

Tim said, “No, I’m taking you to lunch.”

They went to lunch and Jenny only spoke to say, “Dad, it’s time to go back”

One month later Tim turned up at the classroom and Jenny just looked at him and said “I guess it’s lunch”.

They went off to lunch and again all Jenny said was “Dad, it’s time to go back.”

One month later, first Wednesday of the month, Tim turned up at the school again. He didn’t get to the classroom because Jenny was waiting for him in the car park. She said, “Dad, you wouldn’t believe it. All my friends said that you’d be here today. How come your dad comes and takes you to lunch when my dad’s not home for dinner most of the time?”

Jenny finished high school many years ago, but in all the time she was there they only missed a few of those lunch dates. Sometimes they’d go to restaurants, sometimes to fast food outlets, most times he’d just bring sandwiches for them both. The food was not the big deal. The big deal was that once the food was eaten they’d just walk, sometimes with arms linked and bubbly conversations, sometimes not touching and with hardly a word said, but they’d walk and talk. As Tim told me, the lunches were not always great and the conversations were not always sparkling, but every significant thing Jenny ever shared with him through those years started on those walks through parks. Tim took a risk and made a breakthrough. What risk do you need to take to make a breakthrough of dialogue with your teenager?

The principle? Find something your child and wants to do so badly it will be willing to do it with you and make it happen.

Find what works for your child, fit in with that, and keep in mind that this developing relationship will be the foundation of what you enjoy together for the whole of your life.

Enjoying these posts? Then get the “prequel” –Understanding Your Teenager,  an eBook that reveals what changes are happening in your child – physical, social, emotional, intellectual – and equips you with knowledge and ideas to deal with them. Only $7! Click for more information

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