If you’re parenting a teenager and try to engage him or her in conversation by asking questions, you might hear one of the following five replies more often than not:
- I’m fine
- I don’t know
- It was fine
What your teen probably wants to say, but knows better, is “Leave me alone!” or “Stop asking me questions!” While you may take comfort in the knowledge that this is typical teen behavior and not a reflection of your worth as a parent, you probably can’t help but get your feelings hurt. After all, you’ve invested much of your life into this individual, who just so happens to be one of your favorite people on earth. Why can’t they humor you by having a short conversation?
It might help to know that there are often specific reasons why teens tend to clam up with their moms or dads, according to psychologist Lisa Damour, who wrote Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. In her article for the New York Times, Damour outlines the following four situations in which teenagers may choose to not discuss their thoughts and emotions with their parents:
- They’re worried about how you’ll react to what they tell you. For instance, if your teen fails a geometry test, they may worry you’ll say something like, “I told you you should have studied instead of going to your friend’s house.” And that is not what your teen wants to hear if they are already upset about it.
- They assume you’ll punish them. If they’re upset because they dropped their iPhone and cracked the screen, they may worry you’ll take their phone away.
- They worry that you’ll share their secret. If they have someone new they are dating, they may worry that you’ll embarrass them on social media or in front of their friends.
- They’re trying to “get over it” and don’t want to rehash whatever is bothering them. If they were picked on or humiliated at school, they probably just want to forget about the incident rather than relive it. (And they may worry you’ll embarrass them by confronting the individual(s) responsible. Or their parents.)
How Parents Can Encourage Their Teenagers to Talk
The teen years can be difficult years. Kids are navigating that precarious terrain between adolescence and adulthood—and it’s full of landmines. As a parent, try to practice restraint and learn to tread lightly (and to not take it personally!)
You’ve heard the adage, “Treat others how you would like to be treated.” This is excellent advice to follow when you’re trying to get your teen to open up and communicate.
- Listen. If your child begins to open up, this is your cue to stop talking. Avoid the temptation to end uncomfortable pauses. Instead, listen well, retain eye contact, and use facial expressions to encourage your teen to elaborate.
- Empathize. When you do respond, don’t discount your teen’s feelings as silly or irrational. Instead, use empathetic language such as, “I can understand why that would disappoint you.” Or, “that must have been very uncomfortable for you.”
- Vow to be understanding and withhold judgment. You won’t like everything your teen tells you. Some things will anger or disappoint you—tremendously. Even when this is the case, keep in mind that your teen deserves some credit for sharing difficult information with you. If you resist the urge to respond in knee-jerk fashion and practice restraint, your teen will probably be shocked by how you don’t respond—and be more likely to confide in you in the future.
- Thank them. Thank your teen for sharing and end the conversation with a compliment.
- Judge. That’s a surefire way to ensure your teen will keep it to themselves in the future.
- Interrupt. That’s frustrating and will probably cause your teen to shut down.
- Press for details. Consider the things your teen shares with you as gifts. Don’t be greedy!
- Try to fix it. As much as you want to, you can’t solve all his or her problems. Growing up is hard.