Let’s face it. Teens can read right through inauthentic conversation. If an adult is “trying” to have a conversation with them, it’s going to feel awkward for you and for them. If you’re going to connect with an adolescent and you’re trying too hard, likely he or she is going to respond with “Yuck!” inside.
If you’re a parent or caregiver or simply someone who cares, seeing a teen who is in trouble might prompt a desire to talk with them. But, of course, it’s common for a teen to respond with one syllable or with a look that says, “Are you for real?’
At the same time, there are ways to begin and sustain a conversation with teens that elicit their true thoughts and feelings. For instance, sometimes a scene from a movie or TV show can be a shared experience that can prompt a good conversation. Or it might be a song lyric, a news story, or something that has happened in the neighborhood. These can be effective conversation starters, especially events that are current and timely.
But even still, there are some other points to remember. Using a current event to elicit a conversation isn’t going to work if you’re taking the I-know-better-than-you approach. Instead, a good way to start is to ask, “What do you think about that?”
If a peer or family member learns she is pregnant, or if a television show discusses teen relationships, or if a news report on something involving teens, these can be good “ice breakers” to get a conversation going. However, you might still get an, “I dunno,” from your teen. And if you do, the trick, according to psychotherapist Janet Sasson Edgette, is to make the conversation sound natural. Use every day, normal language versus any premeditated scripts.
Too often, building rapport with a teen turns into probing that teen with questions while he or she sits in silence with a stonewalled face. The teen’s speechlessness makes every word glaringly stand out while slowly the conversation comes to an end. To avoid this, Edgette suggests, the conversation itself needs to change. The quality of the relating needs to be equal and mutual. Instead of speaking to a teen as though he or she is the child and you are the adult, connect with that adolescent as you would with another adult. When teens hear language that sounds phony, condescending, or patronizing, it tends to invoke a lack of trust, anxiety, defensiveness, and even anger.
Most adolescents are very protective of their dignity and deepening sense of self. For this reason, they can be unforgiving with adults who talk down to them, who take the I-know-more-than-you approach, and who attempt to have some advantage over them.
Too often, parents or other adults in a teen’s life believe that building trust with that adolescent means promising him or her confidentiality. However, the truth is that building rapport with a teen comes more readily by not invalidating them. For instance, if their stories begin to conflict, rather than pointing out those contradictions, find the meaning of their stories and focus on that. Pointing out a teen’s contradictions only leads to embarrassment and, as a result, further distance between you.
In fact, the stronger the attempts to build rapport and the more obvious those attempts are, the more likely a teen will react. Instead, a natural, easy going approach in which you are being authentic allows for true engagement. Although most adults might tend to think that being overly empathetic and nonjudgmental will create a beginning bond, without authenticity, an adolescent will feel the phoniness and retort.
In general, being real, staying respectful, and honoring their developing sense of self are the ways to build true rapport with an adolescent. In this way, you can have an open, honest, and trusting conversation with them.