Most parents know what it’s like to get one-word answers when they ask their teenagers or pre-teens “How was your day?” or “How are your friends?” at the dinner table or in the car.

If they think back, they might remember being on the receiving end of those questions when they were that age — questions that I know always seemed to catch me in a bad mood, no matter how well-intentioned, non-invasive, or non-threatening my parents tried to be.

But now, talking with teenagers — and getting them to actually communicate — is a large part of my job as Morgan Park Academy’s wellness counselor. It’s not always easy, but here are a few tips and guidelines I use all the time.

1. Really listen — quietly.

The concept is simple, but it is surprisingly hard to do. Our tendency when listening is to jump in and make sure we have the facts — who, what, where, when, and why — or insert our opinion. I’ll never forget the student who politely asked if I could just remain quiet until he finished his story because I was interrupting his thought process. If it’s important, they will mention it.

2. Have pure motives.

Kids can sense when the conversation is headed toward finding out how much homework they have, how they did on a test, or what their current grade is in science. It depends on the situation, but often, fact-finding missions like that can wait. I like to find out how students are doing, in their own opinion, unrelated to academic measures.

3. Listen without an agenda.

Of course, I have my own opinions or judgments about what I’m hearing, but the important thing is that the student trusts me enough to tell me what’s going on and doesn’t feel like a punishment is headed their way. By opening the dialogue, they can begin to come up with their own solutions. Often I find that the student already has an internal compass pointing them in the direction that makes sense to their morals and values, and just needs the confidence to follow through.

4. Be patient.

Sometimes a student isn’t ready to talk the first or second time I ask them how they’re doing or check in. Then they’ll surprise me by coming in unannounced and really opening up. Showing a teen that you’re open, supportive, and there — if and when they need you, goes a long way.

5. Find strength in numbers.

I find that if I’m talking with a student and his or her friend, the conversation flows even more quickly. Friends can affirm our thoughts, add commentary, or remember details. Friends give an extra boost of confidence.

Good luck! Effective communication is a work in progress, especially with growing and changing young people, and I learn something new every day.

I’d also recommend a great blog post I read recently:

How to Ask “How Was School Today?” Without Asking “How Was School Today?”

The author has some great ideas for conversation-starters with teenagers. I’m going to have to try a few myself!


By Emily Zumbaugh

Ms. Zumbaugh is our wellness counselor.