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What Your Teen Isn't Telling You

If your child has been giving you the silent treatment, here's how to subtly but surely improve

Here’s what I learned:

Take the side door

When talking to teens, the straightforward approach will likely lead you into a brick wall. If your child sees an intrusive question coming, he’ll deflect it. Instead, initiate a conversation with seemingly harmless questions. "You might be trying to find out the name of your child's new friend. Don’t say, 'Who’s that kid you're always texting lately?'" says Robin Haight, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescents and who is in private practice in Vienna, Va. "Instead, ask banal questions: 'What video game are you playing?' 'Do you get high scores?' Your son might start talking about the game and mention that 'Brian' gets better scores. A few days later, you might hear more about Brian. With teens, information comes in snippets. As a parent, you gather those bits and try to fill in the big picture."

While the stealth approach will yield more of these snippets, it will take time, so be patient — and proactive. "Create what I call a 'target-rich environment,'" says Haight. "Ask more of those harmless questions that might lead somewhere. Keep the topics neutral: sports, food, shopping." It could take weeks of conversational sidewinding to net a juicy nugget of information. Chatting about Grand Theft Auto and Lady Gaga for hours may seem like wasted breath, but, cautions Haight, keep in mind that "you're building comfort and trust, and reinforcing the connections within the family."

Bring Icebreakers

Conversations often flow better when there’s an object that triggers them. This is something TV interviewers and documentary filmmakers know well: "Putting a subject in a chair, turning on the camera, and saying, 'Now tell me your deepest fears, hopes, and dreams' may not work. The subject can feel put on the spot," notes Ricki Stern, mother of three and an Emmy-nominated director and producer of documentary films,including Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. "But if you do something with them, like drive in a car or cook, or put something in their hands, subjects have something to do and will start talking about the object, and the next thing you know, they go off on a barely related tangent about something more revealing."

So bring home a stack of rented DVDs to jump-start some chats. Walk into the house with a bag of groceries, and you will not be alone for long. I knocked on Maggie’s bedroom door with a new liquid eyeliner. "I have a business lunch tomorrow," I said. "Thought I’d try a smoky eye."

Standing at her mirror, I started working and asked for her input.

"You’re not doing it right," she said, and directed me to sit on her bed to submit to a makeover.

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