Talking with Teens: Six Conversation Starters That Will Reveal More Than Reading Kids’ Texts

Last week, I was at a school and a mom asked whether she should be reading her teen’s texts. She had no specific reason for concern, just a general feeling that he wasn’t sharing as much with her.

As you know, I‘m a big fan of mentoring over monitoring. If you do monitor, be sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Not just because your 15-year-old is less open with you about his life than he was when he was 11. That’s typical development and does NOT, on its own, indicate that your kid is in trouble, sexting, vaping, or doing anything wrong.

Most of the time, being in conversation with your kids will give you more insights than reading their texts. Over-surveilling our kids can be stressful and lead them to feel like they can’t talk to us. Many teens feel their parents’ surveillance has harmed the relationship by causing mutual mistrust.

We want to be a resource for our kids’ digital lives, but we also need to let them experience some independent problem-solving, especially as they get older. Even if some of the support comes from you, it is better if they get there through their own thinking process and choice.

Here are some conversation starters to make talking with teens about social media easier:

Sometimes kids open the door. In this scenario, maybe your teen tells you about something they saw or expresses shock or disgust about a post.

  1. Kid says: Another kid has posted something “gross” or “weird.”

    You could say: How do you think they were hoping people would respond?

    Or: How do you think people will react? Do you think anyone will unfollow them?

    Or: Are you worried about the kid who posted? Do they seem OK?
  1. Kid says: This friend is always on their phone, it is so annoying.

    You could say: Do you feel comfortable letting them know how it makes you feel? Or is there a way to get the point across with humor?

Here are some scenarios where you initiate a conversation by starting with a question: 

  1. Do you know anyone who acts very differently in a game, or on Discord, or on social media from how they act when you are together, in person?

If they knew the person first online (like met them on Roblox and they are now meeting in person.)
What surprised you about how they acted in person when you met them?

Here are some open-ended questions for talking with teens:

  1. What are some good ways to help a friend who gets too mad when they are gaming?

    Once you hear what they come up with, if they haven’t mentioned grounding in the body with breath, exercise, or a snack, you could throw those ideas into the mix. Talking with teens is delicate–always better if the ideas come from them.
  1. Have you ever stopped following someone on TikTok or YouTube because of hateful language?

    I would definitely remind them that they don’t want to be in spaces where people are targeting others. Individuals or groups. Even if they don’t feel targeted, we shouldn’t support spaces like that with our attention. And we don’t want to get used to being around hateful language or aggression since it could start to feel “normal.”
  2. What can  someone do to feel better when scrolling social media makes them feel left out, like in “all my friends are hanging out without me?”

    The kids I’ve spoken to have great ideas! I would always frame this as a normal part of life on social media!

The problem with covertly tracking our kids is how will you bring up what you have seen if they don’t know you are there. And if they know you are tracking them, at a certain age, they will start going around you and hiding more, just to preserve privacy. Ideally, kids need to talk with us about what they are seeing out there, and they need to have strategies.

The good news is that kids are very self-aware. In another memorable school visit, when I asked the students how to help a friend who gets too mad and “rage quits” when they game, one sixth-grade boy raised his hand and said, “Sometimes the friend is me.” 

I reminded the kids that grounding in the body is really good for transitioning from games and calming down. Drinking a glass of water, deep breaths, and bouncing a ball. 

But if you lead with advice, before generating interest in the challenge at hand, kids won’t listen in the same way. 

If you feel like you don’t know HOW to bring up these tough-to-discuss issues with your tween or teen, download my free SOS guides to Damage Control and Sexting. There are some sample scripts in these free downloadable guides that will help!

Ultimately, there is a balance between protecting our kids and making sure they feel comfortable approaching us with issues they encounter. To create this balance, we need to establish mutual trust as we mentor our kids. This trust can come from simply starting non-invasive conversations about the posts they encounter. Talking with teens and listening for our cues that they are ready to talk really helps.

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