How One Exercise Can Improve Your Communication with Your College Student (or Teen) Without Saying a Word

Kids are different.  As parents, we know this.  Some will talk your ear off and share everything going on in their lives.  Some talk a lot, but never really share what’s below the surface.  Others stay mum and it’s difficult to pry their thoughts from them.

As parents, most of us crave quality communication with our kids.  So when they don’t share, we’re frustrated.  Sometimes we beg for more information.  Sometimes we get angry.  And sometimes we just talk more.  These approaches seldom work.

We’d like to offer an exercise to improve your communication with your student – even before you open your mouth.

Yay! Uh-oh! And Lost Opportunities!

One of the first things that you can do to help you begin to improve your communication with your student actually has nothing to do with your student directly.  Spend some time in the company of others and unleash your powers of observation and analysis.

As you go through your daily life, watch others with their children/teens.  These can be exchanges in the grocery store, school and athletic events, church, activities, traveling, an Accepted Student Day, an admission visit, or wherever you find yourself with other families around you.  Maybe take some time just to sit on a bench in the mall or at the park.

As you watch others with their children (they don’t need to be teens) pay attention to the communication exchanges.  (Sometimes you can do this even without hearing what is said.)  As you watch or hear the exchanges, make a note placing each in one of three categories.

Yay! — A Yay exchange is one where you think, ”Good for that parent!”  It’s one where you see the parent really listening, or being especially honest or sincere, keeping a level head, honoring what he or she hears.  Yay, for that parent!  Here’s a model to follow.  How can you use what you see in your own exchanges?

Uh-oh! — An Uh-oh exchange is one where you cringe a bit.  You recognize something that’s not working.  Perhaps this parent isn’t really paying attention, or uses a tone that doesn’t work, interrupts, is inappropriate, or responds in a way that devalues what the child has said.  Think about your own communication with your student and honestly evaluate whether you are ever guilty of similar responses.  These are conversation stoppers for sure.  How can you avoid them?

Lost opportunities — A lost opportunity is just what it sounds like.  The parent’s response hasn’t made you cringe, but you recognize that a moment was missed.  There was an open door, and the parent didn’t take advantage of it. Perhaps she wasn’t focused, was distracted, was busy thinking about responding or just moved on too quickly.  Most of us probably have more lost opportunities than uh-oh moments.  They just fly by us.  Think about opportunities you may have missed and consider how you might listen more carefully, stay focused, and take advantage of moments offered.

The object of this exercise is not to judge the parents that you observe.  Some of them may even be your best friends!  It is to learn through the observation.

Applying the lessons

Then, of course, think about how to apply what you learn to your own communication with your student.  This is not always easy.

Think, first, about how you listen.  Do you listen enough and talk only a little?  Sometimes students may not share much because they don’t believe that we’re really listening.  What do you do to make sure that your student knows that you’re really listening?  Are you guilty of any of the poor listening habits?  Are you using the right kind of listening for every situation? (Did you know there are different types of listening?)  Are you willing, sometimes, to simply be a sounding board and let your student vent?

Then think about your response.  Do you ask questions that invite more conversation?  Do you respond honestly and in a way that shows respect for your student to encourage your student to share more?  Are you reading between the lines of what your student actually says?  Are you too quick with your advice before you really hear what your student has to say?  Do you minimize what your student is feeling?  Consider whether there are some new ways that you can respond to your student to keep the conversation building.

Experiment with some new approaches.  Even if you feel that you are a great listener and you do everything possible to invite open conversation, there may be room for improvement.


There’s one final thing that may help improve your communication with your student, but this one involves actually talking to your student.  It’s simple, but one of the things we often forget.

Ask your student if there is anything that you can do to help him share more information with you.  Don’t do this at the moment of your frustration.  Wait until a quiet moment when everyone is relaxed.  Perhaps share why you wish your student shared more and how you feel when he doesn’t. Then ask whether there is anything that you can do.  Ask directly whether he feels heard when he talks to you.  Ask whether you jump in too soon.  Ask whether he’s worried about your response or reaction to whatever he says.  Perhaps he can tell you some about some uh-oh moments or lost opportunities.  Be ready to hear whatever he has to say.

These are not easy conversations.  It may feel awkward and a bit vulnerable at first to broach this subject. But it’s the beginning of important shared conversations.  Remember that good communication is a two-way street.  If you want your student to share, you may need to take the first step.

If your communication with your student is all that you could hope for, congratulations!  It’s not easy to establish that relationship.  But if you feel your communication could be improved, don’t lose hope.  It may take work, but you can build new ways of listening, sharing, and talking.  Capitalize on the yay moments, try to limit the uh-ohs, and start to recognize and minimize those lost opportunities.

Related articles:

Communicating with Your Student: Are You Listening?

Communicating with Your Student: Are You Sure You Understand?

Helping Your College Student Avoid “How Do I Tell My Parents?” Fears

Communicating with Your Student: Are You Sure You Understand?

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5 thoughts on “How One Exercise Can Improve Your Communication with Your College Student (or Teen) Without Saying a Word”

  1. Ambika – Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article helpful. I definitely know I’ve seen – and been guilty of – many lost opportunities. Being objective and just observing others can be so informing.

  2. Hi,
    This is the most sensible article I’ve read ever. Rather than explaining what to do and what not in some situations which may or may not benefit patents who come from different parts of the world, you describe how to change how you think and how to get emitionally closer to yiur child when you interact with him. I really like how you tried to explain this by the ‘Yay! Uh-oh! And Lost Opportunities!’ pattern. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    • I totally agree with Ambika’s comment. It’s quite interesting how you explain a teenager’s emotions. Of course, everything is much more complicated in practice and apart from these three, there are all kinds of variations in teens’ reactions. However, your article helped me look at ‘lost opportunities’ differently. Thank you!

      • So glad you found the lost opportunities helpful. Sometimes, they may be the hardest to identify. And you are right. Nothing is as easy in practice as it is in theory. It’s messy, but as long as we keep trying, we’ll move forward.


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