Most parents and teachers would love to understand teenagers better, especially when it comes to how they are facing day-to-day challenges. But that’s difficult when a characteristic of adolescence seems to be remaining quiet or offering minimal responsiveness. This distance often looks like sullenness — or something worse. While a degree of hesitation in talking to adults may be natural, and therefore manageable, it is vital that troubled teens open up and let others in on what they’re feeling. But how to coax a struggling teen into breaking the silence?

Invite, not command, participation.

Attempting to force a teenager to do something she doesn’t want to do will almost certainly create a whiplash effect. If you thought she was uncommunicative before; just wait till she’s feeling badgered to speak. Better to try simple, friendly and consistent invites to share. “Tell me something about your day?” “What do you think of your English teacher?” “What’s going on with [name of friend] these days?” This isn’t rocket science — it’s conversation.

Specificity helps; too many yes-or-no questions will likely elicit one-word answers. Teenagers can become instantly fatigued if they think they need to deliver an impromptu oral report on the state of their lives. But it’s important to ask thoughtful questions and do it consistently. Show you’re interested (and not trying to snoop or judge), and the adolescent walls come down a little.

Model the behavior you want to see.

Sometimes teenagers are close-mouthed and distracted because they are around close-mouthed and distracted adults. So modeling good communication skills is essential. Let them see proper give-and-take, kind words, natural dialogue. Sure, they’re on the fast road to adulthood. However, adolescents are still kids to some degree,  still sponges, and they absorb positive behavior as readily as they absorb bad behavior.

Listen to what’s being said.

If and when your teen starts talking, remember to listen. This is vital. Don’t interrupt, don’t jump in with the list of vital questions you’ve been saving for this very opportunity. Don’t push an agenda. That will be obvious to most any adolescent, and chances are they’ll immediately clam up, or else tell you what you think you want to hear. The whole point is to get to know your teenager better — her authentic self — so if she’s trying to tell you something, pay her the courtesy of genuinely listening.

Getting kids to open up isn’t always easy; in fact, it seems close to impossible at times. But patience, discipline, and the right attitude can go a long way towards getting to know the teen in your life better.