Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to a Teenager

Illustration: Heeje Min Heo

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

AsAs a senior in high school, I can tell you that it is hard to talk to teenagers. We’re moody, acne-ridden, hormonal messes who spend more time in front of a screen than interacting with other people.

But you know what? It’s kinda hard to talk to you, too. For one thing, you adults keep asking us the same questions! (School is fine, thanks. Yes, applying to college is stressful.)

The holidays are upon us, and I’m here to warn you: You may find yourself having to converse with one of us. If you do it right, you (and they) might even enjoy it. Here are a few pointers.

Feel out the situation

With teenagers, you never really know what you’re going to get. So the best thing to do when confronted with a teenager is to feel out what kind of mood they’re in and how receptive they are to chatting.

If they seem to be in a cheerful mood, that’s great. Approach them. If they don’t seem to want to talk, are pointedly hunched over a phone, or are actively avoiding proximity or eye contact with you, maybe don’t.

Start with easy topics

Depending on the person, you probably have some areas of interest in common with your teenage conversation partner. Try to find one the teenager can speak confidently about, ideally one they’re enthusiastic about.

Television shows or movies are a good place to start: Did you see the Charlie’s Angels remake? What shows are you watching right now? If you find a show or film that you both saw — and either loved or hated — that’s great conversational fodder. Music, comic books, video games, and pop culture are also good bets.

Look for cues as to what the teen is into based on their age, personal style, and conversation. For example, I consider myself a geek, and the crowd I hang out with are fellow members of the geekdom. On a recent car ride, my dad engaged my friend and me in a fun debate about who would win in a fight: Iron Man or Batman.

Avoid risky topics

Just as there are safe topics, there are also danger zones. One risky area, depending on the teen, might be school. School is something my friends and I never want to talk about.

Another topic not to press on is the future, unless the teen brings it up without prompting. It may be fine to ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up (an astronaut! Wonder Woman!), but this question is getting very real for teenagers, and it isn’t an easy one to answer. Many teenagers are already stressed out enough, and having an adult grill them about their career or college plans doesn’t help.

If the teenager is really into talking about politics, proceed with caution. Some teenagers have strong opinions and love to share them. While you might eagerly dive into a debate with a peer, think twice before taking on a teenager. Even if you think the teenager is ignorant and misinformed, resist the urge to point out our naivete.

Make us feel good

Sometimes teenagers put up a facade that we don’t care what adults think of us. But we really do want adults to think highly of us. The best conversations I’ve had with adults are those where I walked away feeling good about myself and more confident.

Don’t be put off if we’re a bit awkward. Remember, we usually talk to each other by text. We might want to have a one-on-one conversation with an adult, but we need your help with learning how to do that.

You, as the adult, might need to do a bit more of the heavy lifting to move the conversation along. And ultimately, teenagers are just people, so the best approaches are the same as in any conversation: respect, curiosity, and listening.

Zachary Maxwell is a filmmaker and high school senior attending public school in New York City

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