Back to School: Communication Strategies to Support Your Child Throughout the School Year
As the flame of summer slowly burns out, teens and parents alike are beginning to wonder what the upcoming school year might bring. Alongside the typical questions of class schedules, extracurricular activities, and friendships are deeper questions of mental health, safety, and the ever-changing landscape of our world. While research shows that mental and emotional well-being in adolescence has been associated with quality parent-adolescent relationships , a recent survey shows that one-fourth of girls and boys felt unable to talk to their mother about problems, and over half of girls and one-third of boys felt unable to talk to their father .
With the stakes high and odds seemingly stacked against them, parents may feel at a loss on how to build a stronger and more trusting relationship with their child, and if a more connected relationship is even possible. Using strategies aimed at increasing the parent-child relationship and encouraging open communication can support parents on their journey toward building a desirable bond with the children in their lives.
A connected relationship: Why it matters
If you have ever been a parent to a preteen or teenager, you may know all too well how difficult it can be to engage in a meaningful conversation with an adolescent. At times it feels easier to just sit back and allow them to come to you if they have a problem. Unfortunately, the wait-them-out strategy can lead to issues reaching a boiling point. In fact, a recent study showed that youths who perceived low parental communication and caring were associated with unhealthy weight control, substance use, suicide attempts, body dissatisfaction, depression, and low self-esteem. Further, results from a study of 879 adolescents indicated that only about half of youths who had attempted suicide had approached an adult to discuss their problems, raising the concern that youths who are at greatest need for adult intervention may not seek it .
Alternatively, recent cross-sectional research among youths in grades 7-12 found that high parent-family connectedness is predictive of decreased emotional distress and suicidality in adolescence . Parents finding creative ways to engage with adolescents and asking the right questions can create feelings of trust between the parent and teen, increasing the likelihood of timely communication and open dialogue about daily struggles – big and small.
Busy hands may open windows
When I was a grief counselor, I met regularly with a mom who was navigating her children’s grief following the death of her husband. One of her daughters was particularly difficult to communicate with and mom struggled to know if she was missing the mark in supporting her. During a session together, she recounted a moment when she was sitting in the kitchen, working on a project, and her daughter came in, lingered for a moment, and began to help her mother with her project. After some time, her daughter briefly mentioned how much her father had disliked craft projects and the mess they made. I wondered out loud with the mom how she had responded to the statement, and she replied that she was distracted with the project and didn’t really know how to respond, so she just continued her work.
The issue with being a parent is that we are also human beings with our own thoughts and needs, tasks, and deadlines. In moments when our children may be seeking connection − opening a window as I like to call it − it is up to us to capitalize on the moment and give our children what they need when they are willing to engage with us. Unfortunately, many times we miss the moments by not realizing that they are happening. What we can do is our best. We can try our best to be aware of the open window moments that we are given, be patient in times when those windows are closed, and reflect on how we are allowing ourselves to be fully present, even as life continues to bustle around us.
How to spot an open window
While it may often appear that your teen wants little to do with you, when a child reports enjoyment of shared activities with parents, research correlates affection for parents, consensus with parents, dating happiness, feelings of community attachment, low psychological distress, happiness, life satisfaction, and an array of other positive outcomes . As we look to articles, websites, and experts in the field for “how to connect with your teen,” the results come out to some variation of the following strategies:
- Be together. Cook together, practice a shared hobby, tell stories, plan date days just for the two of you, etc. The essential component is time spent together .
- Listen without fixing. While it is endlessly difficult to watch your child struggle and you may think you have an answer that could help, constantly “fixing” their problems may cause your teen to feel like they can’t just talk things out with you. Try this: The next time your teen shares an issue with you ask, “Do you want me to offer a solution, or would you rather I just listen?” 
- Show trust. Allow your teen to figure things out on their own when they do not seek your advice. Give them opportunities to guide themselves. Show them you have faith in them .
- Listen and take advantage of open windows. Stay curious about your child’s life and listen to their problems – big and small. Validate their feelings and praise them in their own problem solving. Ask open-ended questions and be intentional in communicating your interest .
While these steps in theory sound easy, in practice they can be incredibly difficult. Stay patient with yourself and give grace in the moments when you don’t get it perfect.
Asking better questions
There is little doubt that asking “How was school today?” is a relatively ineffective way to truly find out how school was today. Oftentimes, getting a teen to participate in an engaged conversation takes a lot of work, but it’s well worth the effort. Next time you see your teen, before heading to the general questions consider the following list, selected from a list of 25 questions created by Simple Simon & Company :
- What is your easiest class? What is your hardest class?
- What class are your learning the most in? What class are you learning the least in?
- If you could read minds what teacher’s mind would you read? What classmate’s mind would you read? Whose mind would you NOT want to read?
- What do you think you should do more of at school? What do you think you should do less of?
- What are the top 3 (or 5) things that you hear people say in the halls?
- Who did you help today? Who helped you today?
- If you could be invisible for the day at school, what would you do?
- What part of the day do you look forward to? What part of the day do you dread?
- If you had to go to only one class every day, which class would it be?
- What would your school be better with? What would your school be better without?
- What was the coolest (saddest, funniest, scariest) thing that you saw today?
 The Parent-Adolescent Relationship Scale - SpringerLink
 Parent–Child Connectedness and Behavioral and Emotional Health Among Adolescents - ScienceDirect
 Teenage Connection: The 11 Best Ways to Connect With Your Teen - Raising Healthy Teens Orange County
 Tips for Communicating With Your Teen - Child Mind Institute
 25 Ways to Ask Your Teens "How Was School Today?" Without Asking Them "How Was School Today?" - Simple Simon & Company