By Wendy Wisner
A typical day with my teen goes something like this: He grumbles a few words to me at 6:45 a.m. as he scarfs down a bowl of cereal. He goes to school, comes home, has a snack, and then locks himself in his room until dinnertime. He’s pleasant enough at dinner time but doesn’t really feel like talking about his day or anything else.
Finally, the day is done. We’ve put our younger son to bed, and my husband and I curl up on the couch to watch TV. That’s when our teen saunters into the living room. He wants to talk. His eyes light up as he tells us something funny his friend said in math class. He’s excited and nervous about the play he’s auditioning for. He begins pouring his heart out about the things that are stressing him out, the things he’s looking forward to, his hopes and dreams.
This is not something I expected to happen during the teen years. I knew my teen would want his privacy, and that it might be harder to connect. What I didn’t expect was that the desire to connect would be just as strong, but that it would happen so late in the day.
Apparently, according to a very informal poll I did among my friends with teens, this is definitely “a thing.” There are a whole slew of us parents staying up at 10 or 11 p.m. to chat with our teens.
I found the whole phenomenon fascinating, so I reached out to two psychologists to help all of us parents understand this phase a little better.
Why the Late Hour Chats?
Dr. Lauren Kerwin, a psychologist in private practice specializing in teens and young adults, says there are a few key reasons why teens tend to open up at night.
First, there are the biological reasons—namely, puberty, and the hormonal and developmental changes that go along with that. “During adolescence, kids turn into night owls,” Kerwin explains. “Their circadian rhythms adjust, causing them to get sleepy only later at night.”
Next are the practical reasons. It’s normal for teens to be intensely occupied with other stuff during the day—schoolwork, extracurricular activities, friends—and they simply have no headspace to talk and connect with their parents during the day.
Also, the end of the day may be your teen’s only chance to get undivided attention from you. (I can attest to this!) If they are taking advantage of that time, that can be a good thing. It also means that they are viewing home as a “safe space” where they can let loose and be themselves.
“When they come home, they can unwind, relax, and be themselves—there’s no social pressure anymore,” says Kerwin. “This can help them open up more, verbally and emotionally.”
Is This Normal Behavior?
Kerwin says that yes, this behavior is typical. “Teens are generally more private and not as communicative with parents during adolescence,” she says.
However, Kerwin cautions that a pattern where your child just really doesn’t want to talk to you at all during the day might be concerning. She recommends doing a little self-reflection if that’s the case.
“Ask yourself: What does my child want to talk to me about?” Kerwin suggests. “Does your teen ever get passionate or very verbal about a specific subject? Can you home in on that during the day and see if you can engage them in that topic?”
Importantly, says Kerwin, depression or anxiety can also cause teens to clam up, and you should seek mental health help for your child if that seems to be the case.
Ditch the Agenda
If nighttime is when your teen wants to open up, it’s probably best to take advantage of that. The teen years are all about meeting your teen where they are, whatever that looks like, says Dr. Lea Lis, a child and family psychiatrist.
Lis suggests using these nighttime moments to connect more deeply with your teen. She says that the best way to do that is to allow them to take the reins. These nighttime sessions—or any of the moments when your teen is willing to sit and chat—aren’t the best time to hammer them with questions.
“Let your teen guide the conversation, rather than going into the interaction with an agenda,” says Lis.
Kerwin agrees. “Be present when your teen starts opening up to you, even if it’s late and you want to head to bed,” she says. “Don’t think that they’ll be as talkative in the morning, because they probably won’t.”
Ways to Connect
Of course, many of us are just completely spent at night, and are looking for other times of day to have these important moments with our kids. Others of us may not be able to stay awake long enough to be there when our kids seem to come out of their shells. Or maybe we have a kid who isn’t opening up at night—or any other time.
Lis says that one of the main ways you can get your kids to connect with you more during the day is to set aside some screen-free time, and plan a few activities together. She suggests going for walks with your teen and making dinner time a no-screens event.
Alternatively, you can try to use screens to connect. “If they are using their devices to look at social media, sit down and scroll through with them,” Lis recommends. “Ask them to show you photos or TikTok videos.”
Whatever you do, though, don’t criticize what they are showing you, Lis warns. Make sure you are asking open ended questions and aren’t judging too harshly.
Enjoy This Phase
I will be perfectly honest: my main problem with talking at night is just how exhausted I am. In the past, I was used to my kids going to bed at a decent hour and having a few hours of silence to myself at the end of the day.
But like everything else about parenting, I’m reminding myself that this is “only for now.” I’ve learned that I need to make the most of each stage while it lasts, because I know how quickly things can and do change.
So, although I’m burnt to a crisp every night, I’m doing my best to adjust to this new phase because my gut tells me this is what my son needs. Best of all, it’s something I am able to give him.