You just asked your teenager a question. The response was a mumbled murmur. 

If you’re the parent (or grandparent) of a teen, you’ve probably been frustrated by grunts, quips or silence when you needed answers. Teens like to feel that they have a degree of independence and control over their lives, and questions from authority figures ­occasionally are received as a threat to that independence and control. 

But you need answers—it’s important that you know what’s going on in your teen’s life. Three question-asking strategies that can help improve the odds of getting more than a single syllable from teens…

Phrase the question so that it’s about the teen’s safety. Most teens accept that their parents are responsible for their safety, so they respond better to safety-related questions than ones that infringe on what they consider personal territory—what they wear, what music they listen to and the people they hang out with. 

Example: Your teen is headed to a party, and you want to know if there will be alcohol there. Frame the question as a safety issue, not as an attempt to pry into his/her behavior, by adding, “I know you’re smart enough not to drink and drive, but should I worry that you might wind up in a car driven by someone who isn’t as sensible?” 

Ask questions about teens in general. Teens often won’t give honest answers to questions about their personal behavior or beliefs because they fear that the truth would anger their parents or grandparents…or, once again, they think that the question intrudes on their personal territory. Instead, wait until you and your teen see another teen doing something related to the topic that you want to raise, then ask your teen what members of his generation think or do about this. 

Example: You want to know why your teen wears a style of clothes or listens to music that seems absurd or even offensive to you. Rather than ask, “Why do you do that?,” wait until you see other teens wearing that style or you hear the music on the radio or the soundtrack to a TV show and ask, “Why is this popular with teenagers these days?”

Save questions until you and your teen are both calm. If you ask a teen a question when he is upset, you’re more likely to get an emotional reaction than a rational answer. Also wait until you feel calm. Asking emotion-laden questions often produces emotion-laden reactions. 

Example: Don’t shout, “What the heck were you thinking?” when your teen arrives a half hour after curfew without having called you. Instead, take a deep breath and say, as calmly as possible, “Let’s talk about this in the morning.”

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