Secrets, lies, disinterest. It’s not always easy to talk to your teen, but it’s essential to fostering a safe and healthy relationship. Here’s how to get your teen talking—even when he thinks he doesn’t want to.

By Jordana Handler

DOROTHY WEST felt frustrated and rejected when her 16-year-old daughter, Taylor, chose to spend hours on the phone with her friends instead of hanging out with her family. “Taylor was being rude…and dismissive at mealtime and then would disappear as soon as dinner was over,” she complained. “[She] went from being my best friend to sharing nothing with
me.” On the one hand, Toronto-based West wanted her daughter to grow and flourish, but on the other, she worried about the secrets she was keeping.

Adolescence is a key stage in asserting our independence and establishing our identities—two essential ingredients of a successful adult, says Beverley Cathcart-Ross, a leading national parenting expert and founding director of Parenting Network in Toronto. Parenting a child through this stage, however, can be difficult to manage; especially when your once open teen starts backing into his room to share secrets with his friends. “Teens need privacy, which means they’ll inevitably have a few secrets from their parents,” says Cathcart-Ross. “So it’s up to you to figure out how to bridge the gap while still maintaining a
healthy relationship.” The first step to a healthy connection: keeping an open line of communication.

“Teens do need a certain amount of independence and secrecy in their lives as they grow,” says Cathcart-Ross, “but it is key to make sure that your teen knows that you can and will be there to talk to them if they need you. It is also crucial to encourage them to talk to you often to keep those lines open.” There are many ways to open and keep the lines of communication going so that your teen is getting the privacy they crave and support they need. Here’s how.

Having a secretive teen is normal, reassures Cathcart-Ross. Kids are learning to become more self-sufficient, so it’s not uncommon for them to want to spend more time apart from their parents. The best thing you can do to keep them
talking is reinforce how much you respect your child and have faith in her decisions. It’s important that she knows she can approach you (or her other parent) to talk about anything without fear of judgment.

Not sure how to talk to your teen without looking like you’re prying into her personal life? Try to centre a conversation around an event in the media or use an anecdote that isn’t about her, suggests Cathcart-Ross. When your teen doesn’t feel attacked, she’ll be less likely to act defensively and more likely to share what’s really going on.

There’s a fine line between wanting privacy and keeping secrets says Cathcart-Ross. And, with teens, that line is often hard to
see. While it’s normal for teenagers to keep some confidences and desire discretion, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs that something is troubling, she says. Things to watch for include; a drastic change in behaviour (i.e. if your teen becomes very withdrawn and sullen or if he seems angry and violent). A behavioural shift, she says, is usually an indication that something is wrong and needs to be investigated. Your child could be suffering from substance abuse, bullying or a mental health issue, for instance. If your teen is acting strangely or being reclusive, it’s time to find out what’s really going on.


Remain calm. A productive conversation can’t take place when either side is agitated. Save big talks for a time when everyone is calm and ready to be honest. Don’t push your child to talk if he’s not ready. Allow him time and space to prepare for a sit-down.

Be empathetic. Belittling or patronizing your teen will make her feel unsafe and unwilling to be truthful. Instead, take this opportunity to show her how much you respect her and tell her how badly you want to understand her point of view.

Listen. This may seem like a no-brainer, but we often get so caught up in what we want to say that we forget to listen to our kids. Give your teen the forum to speak and listen to what he is saying.

Take time. Carve out a spot in your diary for quality time with your kid. Turn off your phone (and hers) so you can focus on each other. This will help prove your devotion to
your kid and will allow her to feel important.

Keep up. Engage yourself in your teen’s life. Try and remember his friends’ names and pay attention to the stories he tells. Often a teen will try to tell their parents something by relaying a story about “a friend.” Ask questions and take interest in his life. There’s a fine line between wanting privacy and keeping secrets.

IN THE END, West decided to let Taylor be and not pry into her private personal life. She felt that Taylor deserved her trust and reminded her often that the lines of communication were open and available. She wanted to ensure that Taylor knew she had a safe space to come to if she needed it. Whatever strategy you employ, know that this time is normal. As a parent, you are just trying to make sure your teen is ready to face the world by the time he leaves home and that he has all the skills he needs. Allowing your teen to have secrets and learn about trust and honesty is all part of his independence and growth. ■

DON’T GET MAD. Instead, remind your teen that you respect her and have faith in her despite your disappointment in her actions, says leading national parenting expert and Founding Director of Parenting Network, Beverley Cathcart-Ross. Your teen needs to know that you love, respect and believe in her regardless of what happens. Next, you need to find out why she lied in the first place. Have a discussion to figure out what (if anything) is bothering her and what you can do to help her through it. Finally, it’s time to focus on moving forward and collaborating on a solution for next time. Don’t focus on punishment. Instead, work with your teen to establish a game plan for the future so that lies don’t repeat themselves.