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Teens open up at night. Parents should embrace that.

Illustration of a mother drawing the curtains while her child talks to her from the bed
(Illustration by Emma Kumer/The Washington Post)
6 min

As a psychologist who cares for teens and their families, and as the mother of teenagers myself, I have watched as my children sit silently through dinner, bristling at every question asked, only to be eager to chat once I’ve called it a night.

I know this isn’t just happening in my home. Perhaps standing in the doorway of a parent’s bedroom, or sprawled out on the bedroom floor, or even flopped on top of the bedcovers themselves, otherwise sphinxlike teens often share freely what’s on their minds at a time when parents might want to curl up and drift off. But as much as we might be ready to turn the page on the day, there’s a good reason to make time for our teens’ rapid-onset talkativeness.

Strong relationships between teens and their parents play a major role in the prevention of significant adolescent mental health concerns. But, as almost anyone raising a teenager can attest, it’s not always easy to connect. Typically, teens become aloof, if not downright prickly, when the childlike closeness they shared with their parents comes into conflict with their urge to become increasingly independent.

Unfortunately, this expectable — if often temporary — detachment that characterizes the teenage years pairs poorly with the current crisis in adolescent mental health. If being connected to a teen is a kind of emotional fluoride that helps prevent anxiety disorders, depression and other worrisome psychological concerns, how are parents supposed to administer it when our teen keeps us at arm’s length?

Here’s one suggestion: Let your teen tuck you in.

What is it about parents being ready to go to sleep that makes teens suddenly ready to talk? These late-night visits solve for teens a genuine adolescent dilemma: They can satisfy both their drive for autonomy and their diametrically opposed longing to connect with loving adults.

Teens, by nature, prize self-determination. Adolescent clients in my practice have told me that even if they were, on their own initiative, about to clean their room, they’ll refuse if a parent tells them to do it. In the same vein, teens may dismissively brush aside our reasonable daytime questions, such as “How’s algebra going?” because to them this can feel like being summoned to a meeting, at a time and on a topic of our choosing. Complying under those terms cuts across the teenage grain. Looking at it this way, we might even come to appreciate how often autonomy-oriented teens bend to our agendas — and maybe to take it less personally when they don’t.

By waiting until we’re turning in, teens can open up while also maintaining their independence. They decide whether there will be a “meeting” and roughly when it will begin. Likewise, they determine the agenda, knowing from experience that tired parents are unlikely to introduce fresh topics at the end of the day. Perhaps most important, our teens keep control of when the meeting will end; closing it merely requires acknowledging that their day-weary parents are probably ready to go to sleep.

So how does a tired parent handle this? For starters, as much as we can, we should welcome these evening visits as golden opportunities for connection. Rather than shooing teens out of our rooms or urging them to get to the point, let’s allow them to be in charge of the conversation, steering it in the direction and stretching it to the length they’d like. What they put before us in these moments is almost certainly what is most on their minds. And even if what they want to talk about seems truly trivial, understand that the talking itself constitutes our teens’ effort to nourish a connection with us.

Beyond letting our teens run these late-night shows, we might also — bear with me — maximize the factors that invite these tuck-in visits in the first place. Once in bed, let’s try to not give the impression that we are uninterruptible. I suspect it is easier for teens to poke in on a parent reading a book or watching T.V. than one ensconced in a phone or computer.

If you’re worried exhaustion will have you struggling to keep up your end of the conversation, let me offer some reassurance: Your teen may be counting on that. Adolescents tell me that they often prefer to talk to their parents at night, when their folks tend to question less and just listen more.

To be sure, not all teens turn to stopping by their parents’ bedrooms when they want to connect. But I’ve learned that teens tend to be most inclined to open up when they can set the terms of engagement. In my practice I often hear from adolescents that they aren’t ready to talk when their parents’ pepper them with questions right after school, but that they will sometimes put a topic on the table later in the evening or over the weekend, hoping their parents will pick it up.

Of course, even the most attentive parent can’t always be available — and our constant presence is not necessary, or even good, for our teenagers’ healthy development. Nor do all teens have parents they can talk to. Thankfully, relationships with teachers, coaches, mentors and other devoted adults have also been found to go a long way toward supporting well-being in teenagers and preventing a host of behavioral and psychological concerns.

How, exactly, do strong connections with caring adults cultivate adolescent mental health? Articulating unwanted emotions eases psychological distress; describing their inner worlds to trusted adults may help teens metabolize painful moods or experiences. It may also be that talking with adults helps teenagers solve, or keep in perspective, problems that would otherwise worsen.

On their own, loving relationships at home are not always enough to prevent or treat psychological disorders in teenagers. But for teenagers already receiving mental health care, a supportive family life strongly contributes to positive outcomes.

Parents have every reason to be exhausted at the end of the day, and the prospect of a late-night visit from a chatty teen may be a little hard to embrace. But, when we are rightly losing so much sleep over the crisis in adolescent mental health, we might take comfort in knowing that losing some sleep can sometimes be part of the solution.

Lisa Damour is a psychologist and author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers and Untangled, among others.