Your teen is an engaging conversationalist, sharing her views on politics and indulging you with stories about the gossip at school.

When you can get her to say more than two words, that is.

Many adults who interact with teenagers – parents, grandmothers, uncles, mentors – is frustrated from time to time by how hard it is for them to open up.

The root of this silence is the fact that adolescents are forming their own identities, separate from those of their parents. Kids this age cut themselves off from adults, especially their parents, as part of becoming more independent.

"They don't want you to be their confidant, and they don't want to be yours," says psychotherapist Maud Purcell, who works with teens.

Teenagers want control over their conversations. They want to decide exactly what to share with the adults in their lives and when to share it. The key is to give them space to talk when they're ready, says psychologist Barbara Greenberg, co-author of Teenage as a Second Language.

"Once they start talking, the trick is to keep listening," Greenberg says.

Her co-author, Jennifer Powell-Lunder, adds another trick: If you want to get specific information from a teen, ask a general question. If you want to have a general conversation, pose a direct question. Ask "What is one thing you learned today?" instead of "How was school?"

Conversation Starters

  • "Tell me one thing you learned at school today." Powell-Lunder says this statement is a launching pad into chatting about teachers or something funny that happened at lunch.
  • "If you want to talk to me about your day I'd love to hear it." This invites conversation but gives a teen control over when to talk, Purcell explains.
  • "Can I see the pictures on your phone?" Show your interest in what your teen is interested in.
  • "Can you show me how to do this on the computer?" Teens like it when adults appreciate their skills.
  • "Were there a lot of kids at that party?" Greenberg explains that an innocent question like this will likely lead to your teen telling you what you really want to know about the party he went to: If his friend's parents were there and whether the teens did anything dangerous.
  • "Tell me about the drama at school." Teens aren't likely to readily speak to you about their social spats. Ask a more general question and you'll learn more than if you asked directly.
  • "I have a thought. Let me know if you what to hear it." Purcell says this approach works when you want to tell your teen something specific, like the fact that her outfit isn't appropriate. Seek an opening to share your thoughts and your teen will probably be curious enough to listen.
  • "There are a couple of things I want to talk about with you. Let me know when would be a good time." Sometimes you have to talk about a difficult subject, like slipping grades. Teens are more receptive to discussion when they have some say over when it takes place.
  • "I want to talk about what you told me yesterday. What do you want to do about it?" If your teen tells you something frightening – a friend is using drugs, for example – approach it with her as a problem you can help her work through. Greenberg says it's best to start this conversation in a non-threatening setting, perhaps lunch in a café.

Conversation Enders

  • "How was school?" This seems like an innocent query. But teens often hear it right after they get home and need to decompress – just like you might need some time to relax after a day at work.
  • "Why didn't you tell me kids were drinking at that party?" Adolescents shut down in the face of confrontational questions.
  • "That must have made you mad." Teens hate it when adults assume how they will feel about a situation, Powell-Lunder says. Instead say, "That would have made me angry."
  • "The exact same thing happened to me when I was your age." The way teens see the world, no one else has had the same experiences they have. A better approach is to relate a story from your own adolescence. For example: "My junior year I had this friend whose girlfriend was really harsh on him. It was so hard for me because I wanted to help him but I didn't know what to do."

Teens need and want to have trusted adults to confide in. Becoming a trusted adult takes time and effort. But if you establish a relationship with your teen, he'll see you as someone he is not only comfortable talking to, but enjoys sharing conversation with.