‘How was school?’
Sound familiar? Parents want to know how their teens are going at school, but teens often want privacy from their parents. And sometimes it’s difficult to talk, especially if things aren’t going so well.
Luckily, there are simple steps parents can take to keep the lines of communication open.
1. Create a relaxed atmosphere
- Bombard your teens with questions as soon as they get home, when they might be tired and hungry.
- Sit your teens down and interrogate them with lots of direct questions.
- Talk to your teens when you’re obviously distracted by other things – like your phone!
- Let your teens know you’re happy to see them when they get home from school.
- Give them time to have a snack and relax.
- Try chatting while you’re doing a shared activity together, like cooking, folding laundry, walking the dog, washing dishes, or going for a run.
- Set an example of respectful behaviour, such as knocking before going into your teens’ rooms and not bringing up private topics in front of other people.
2. Open up the conversation
- Ask closed-ended questions like ‘Did you have a good day?’, or generalized questions like ‘How was school?’ It’s easy for teens to just say ‘Yep’ or ‘Good’.
- Ask questions that need a specific answer, like ‘What did you do at lunchtime?’ or ‘Who did you sit with on the bus?’
- Ask questions that encourage your teens to reflect, like ‘What did you do today that you’re proud of?’, ‘What was the hardest thing about today?’, ‘Which class are you learning the most in?’ or ‘If you could change one thing about your school, what would it be?’
- Start with an observation – e.g. ‘You’ve got a lot of new students in your class this year. What has that been like?’
- Start with a statement – e.g. ‘I’ve heard bullying is a big problem at some schools. Have you ever noticed this at your school?’
- Start by asking about peers instead of your own child – e.g. ‘What do your friends do to stay safe online?’
- Start by sharing a memory of your own– e.g. ‘When I was in Year 8, there was a girl who got picked on a lot and I didn’t know what to do about it. Have you ever noticed anything like that?’
- Normalise asking about sensitive topics calmly and on a regular basis. Cyberbullying expert Justin Patchin has a good story about chatting with his son about bullying.
3. Listen respectfully and help your teens to find their own solutions
- Take over the conversation with your own opinions
- Do more than 50% of the talking
- Try to solve all your teens’ problems for them
- Ignore what your teens are saying because you’re thinking about your next point!
- Pay attention. Which topics, friends or activities do your teens talk about the most? Is there anything they seem to be avoiding talking about?
- Encourage your teens to keep talking by nodding, waiting quietly, or saying ‘Uh-huh’ or ‘I see…’
- Repeat what your teens have told you, to show you’re listening and check you’ve understood – e.g. ‘So, you’re saying Maddie wouldn’t talk to you today and now you’re worried that you’re not friends any more?’
- Ask your teens how any negative experiences made them feel and how they think the other people involved might be feeling now.
- Accept that your teens will have different opinions to yours. You don’t have to agree with them, but don’t dismiss them straight off.
- Try saying ‘How’ and ‘What’ more often than ‘Why’. For example, ‘Why did you quit the football team?’ can put a teen on the defensive, but they might find it easier to reply if you ask ‘How did you end up quitting the team?’ or ‘So, you quit the team. What happened there?’
- If your teens are grappling with problems, help them think of a few possible solutions. Encourage them to think about the pros and cons of different approaches and find one they feel comfortable trying. Agree to catch up again in a day or two to check how well it worked.
4. Ask for help if you need it
Parentline provides a free, confidential counselling service to talk about the many challenges parents face, including talking with teens.
You might also speak to a trusted GP, a psychologist, or a teacher who knows your teen well.
For more tips on talking with teens about school, check out Raising Children Network, Kids Helpline, and Dolly’s Dream Parent Hub.