How to Talk to Your Teen When They Start to Tune You Out

How to Talk to Your Teen When They Start to Tune You Out

I picked up my teenage daughter from marching band practice last week. She got in the car and immediately started texting.

After a long silence, I said, “Speaking of phones,” — we weren’t speaking of phones — “my whole family used one phone, a landline in the kitchen.’”

“If a friend called,” I continued, “I would bring the phone into our hall closet, stretching the curly cord as far as it would go. Then I’d shut the door, so I could talk in private.”

She stared at me as if I were narrating a Ken Burns documentary, complete with old-timey fiddle music. Then, without responding, she returned to her screen.

Many parents lament that their once-chatty child starts shutting them out when they hit the teen years, said Cara Natterson, a Los Angeles pediatrician and co-author of “This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained.”

You can still get through to them, Dr. Natterson said. You just have to change the way you communicate. I asked her and Dylan Gee, an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center, how to go about it.

In the book, Dr. Natterson and her co-author Vanessa Kroll Bennett say that the temptation for parents to lecture their teen is strong, especially when they feel stressed or out of their depth.

“Typically, it’s rolling off them because it’s just words, words, words flying at them,” Dr. Natterson said.

Instead, take time to listen, she said, which turns a monologue into a conversation, “and models for kids what it looks like to pay attention to another person.” Prompt them with open-ended conversation-starters like, “I’m wondering if …” or “What do you think about …”

Even if you can’t get a dialogue going, the mere presence of a caregiver might actually increase activation in the area of a teenager’s brain that helps with regulation and control, Dr. Gee said, and it can slow reactivity in regions that recognize danger and put us on high alert.

If your teenager asks you something tough or surprising, such as “what is rape?,” Dr. Natterson said to dig a little deeper. You might try saying: “That’s so interesting. What makes you ask that?”

Their answer will probably give you helpful context, Dr. Natterson said. Often a sudden question stems from something they heard, read or saw. “Then you can answer the question you are being asked,” based on the background information they provide, she said.

If it’s a weighty topic, keeping your answer short and specific gives them time to process everything, and they can come back later with follow-up questions.

Once you’ve broached a dread-inducing subject like hookups, it’s tempting to think you’ve crossed it off your list, Dr. Natterson said. Keep going back to it. A 14-year-old is different from an 18-year-old, she said, and as kids evolve, so do the issues they’re dealing with.

“Allow the conversation to become so routine that it’s a nothingburger,” she said. “At my dinner table, it’s not uncommon for me to say, ‘OK, we’re going to talk about porn again,’ to the point where my kid says, ‘Oh my God, again? Can you just pass the peas?’”

The best thing about a series of small conversations, Dr. Natterson said, is that there is space for you to get it wrong and then repair. “Kids love when the adults in their lives own that they got something wrong,” she said. “It’s a bonding moment.” Let them “lord over you,” she said, for being fallible.

If a teenager is enmeshed in some drama, telling them that one day they’ll laugh about it isn’t helpful, Dr. Natterson said, because they don’t have the maturity to look very far down the road.

And offering up your own painful episodes only moves the focus from your teenager to you, she said. So ask first if they want to hear one of your stories from back in the day. “Sometimes they will want to hear, and sometimes they won’t,” she said. Often teenagers just want adults to listen and offer their support instead, she said.

“Much of the time, our stories are not nearly as interesting or relatable as we think they are,” Dr. Natterson said.

My phone story, as it turns out, was neither. When I added that I was required to answer our landline by saying, “Dunn residence, Jancee speaking,” in went the earbuds.

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