At this time of year, we often try to help our kids focus on gratitude. This happens at school, at home, and in places of worship and is a wonderful goal. Besides being the habit of a mature and gracious heart, regular expression of gratitude can help combat anxiety disorders and other problems.

But it can be a challenge to have a conversation with teens about being grateful. Of course it can be a challenge to have any meaningful conversation with teens. Depending on their mood, it may seem impossible.

I’ve made enough mistakes over the years that I have stumbled onto a few things that worked. I believe teens often get a bad rap. They respond the best they can to some very powerful emotional, physical, and social changes they’re experiencing. At any given time there’s an awful lot going on inside, sometimes so much that they’re not sure where to start. The fact that we are the adults gives us the greater responsibility to try to connect with them, not vice versa.

Teens cannot be forced to open up. If we try to compel them, they simply won’t say anything. However, by remembering a few things, you can coax them out and connect with them.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in talking with teens is to not overdo things: keep it simple. Adults seem to frequently put so much weight on a single conversation; we expect that if we just talk long enough or forcefully enough we will change their life, their attitude, or their relationships. That is an awful lot of pressure to put on any conversation — or person.

Don’t try to force them to open up about everything; don’t try to make one talk be life-changing. Just try to connect on a regular basis even for a minute or two. Over time that builds a powerful bond.

Teens live in a constant state of being emotionally charged. There is so much on their minds, so many strong feelings we never see. They deal all day with complex, emotionally laden social interactions. With social media, this now continues all night. Parents can give a welcome respite by making conversations simple, short and not emotionally complicated. Just chat — and make clear that you’re not planning a verbal ambush with lectures or even beneficial parental guidance. You might consider letting them know you’re not planning to talk for very long, that you just want to have a short conversation. Imagine if you were subject to some powerful authority figure waylaying you for unannounced, indeterminate periods of time, talking about all the ways you were falling short!

Tell them you want to ask them some questions. Assure them that there’s no subtext of criticism, that you just want to hear what they think, and that this won’t take a long time. Tell them at the outset that you are taking yourself out of the running for any of the answers to the questions. That will reduce some pressure and help them open up. As you follow up, avoid sounding like you are interrogating or judging them. Teens are especially sensitive to that. Ask questions to help you understand where they’re coming from. When they really sense genuine interest, you might be surprised by how much they’ll open up. Here are 25 questions from which to choose:

  • Who is the most important person in your life that I know?
  • Who is the most important person in your life that I don't know?
  • Tell me why your favorite person is your favorite person.
  • What person has had the biggest influence on you thus far?
  • What person trusts you the most?
  • What person do you trust the most?
  • What person knows you the very best?
  • Of all the people who know you well, who do you think is closest to liking you as you are today — giving you unconditional love?
  • What peer do you admire most? Why?
  • What adult in your life do you admire most? Why?
  • Have you ever told those people how important they are to you? Do you think they have any idea?
  • What activity has had the biggest influence on you so far?
  • If we moved tomorrow whom would you miss most (make it clear you are not moving!)?
  • If we moved tomorrow what activity would you miss most?
  • Phone aside, what appliance /modern invention would you miss the most if we lost electricity?
  • What’s your favorite song? Can you help me understand what you like about?
  • What’s your favorite movie of all time? What do you like about it?
  • What show do you like to binge watch? Why?
  • What book have you read that you liked most?
  • What brings you the most joy in life?
  • What experience are you really glad you had?
  • What experience are you glad is over?
  • What experience are you really glad you had that you are glad is over?
  • What is something you didn’t like but you are glad happened?
  • If you had to list five things, what would you be most grateful for?

Most teens value authenticity, and they want to be seen as the expert on their own lives. They want to be taken seriously. These questions will hopefully help you start.

One other thought about helping teens feel gratitude: I have noticed that they respond very well to first-person, hands-on activities in which they can understand the impact they are making. I believe this affirms their value of authenticity, autonomy and feeling competent. For example, my son derives much more meaning from going to a soup kitchen and serving meals directly than he does sorting food in the food pantry. I’ve known other kids who love the Special Olympics or tutoring special needs children. Helping teens get out and help others who aren’t as fortunate is a powerful way to awaken gratitude without any lectures. Kids are smart enough to make connections.

Braden Bell is a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. The author of seven novels, he blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents. He’s on Twitter @bradenbellcom.

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