On a recent Tuesday afternoon, my daughter Maggie, 15, didn’t come home on time from school. I tried her cell phone; no answer. To my knowledge, she didn’t have any activities or specific plans. By five o’clock, genuine worry kicked in.

At 5:13, she walked in, dropped her backpack on the floor, and said with infuriating nonchalance, "Hey. What’s for dinner?"

"Where have you been?" I asked, sounding just as shrill as my mom had when she had asked me the same question.

"If you’re going to interrogate me, forget dinner," she replied. "I’m going to my room."

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The child who used to sit on my lap while we watched American Idol now thinks I’m a nosy, judgmental, critical, interfering rube. She’s right. But still. I’m not curious about my daughter’s private life for my sake. I just want to make sure she’s OK...and, if not, to reassure Maggie that I want to help. Communication and conversation: That’s what I want.

And so, seeking to grease the wheels of teen/parent relations, I ferreted out strategies from experts plus some other unlikely (but wise) suspects. Read on for steps to improve communication with your teenager.

Take the side door
When talking to teens, the straightforward approach will likely lead you into a brick wall. Instead, initiate a conversation with seemingly harmless questions. "You might be trying to find out the name of your child’s new friend. Don’t say, 'Who’s that kid you’re always texting lately?'" says Robin Haight, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescents and who is in private practice in Vienna, Va. "Instead, ask banal questions: 'What video game are you playing?' 'Do you get high scores?' Your son might start talking about the game and mention that 'Brian' gets better scores. A few days later, you might hear more about Brian. With teens, information comes in snippets. As a parent, you gather those bits and try to fill in the big picture."

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Second that emotion
When chatting, "don’t echo back what they’ve said to prove you’ve been listening. A typical teen might reply, 'Duh, I just said that,'" observes Haight. "Instead, describe the emotion they’ve expressed." For example, if your son brings home a D in geometry and says, "I suck at math," show empathy by saying, "It’s scary to feel like you don’t get something." You’re keying in to the emotion, not telling him he’s wrong ("You’re not stupid!") or going into fix-it mode ("We’ll get a tutor").
And don’t always try to lighten the mood when your child brings up unhappy feelings; you may shut down a conversation before it starts. "Put yourself in her shoes," says Lauren Ayers, Ph.d., a psychologist in Saratoga Springs, NY, and author of Teenage Girls: A Parent’s Survival Manual. "Remember what it was like to feel vulnerable in a high-pressure situation. You may think a joke puts the problem in perspective, but you’re really belittling her." Instead, empathize with the emotion. Odds are, she’ll tell you more about how she’s feeling.

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Aim Lower
"If your kid doesn’t talk to you much, you can’t take it personally," says Haight. "Part of raising kids involves becoming aware that they have a separate life, and that they will make decisions that don’t necessarily reflect on you." Accepting that is critical as your child matures. I find solace in this comment from Ayers: "If you’re circulating enough in your kids’ lives — driving them places, having dinner together — you hear and see enough to spot trouble. Just because kids don’t talk, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem. The fact is, teens aren’t so good at communicating. Were you as articulate at 15 as you were at 25? Set expectations low, and raise them as time passes."

So meet my new mantra: Less is more. There’s a limit to how much I can and should know about my daughter’s private life. It hurts — I won’t lie — to feel excluded from her thoughts. But as an adult, I have to put my feelings aside. Right now, I need to do what’s right for her, which means giving her room to grow...and accepting that running commentary may not always be part of the picture.

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