By Samurai Mom
Here’s the truth: communicating with your teen is often the single most challenging problem we parents face. When you set the stage for a supportive and respectful relationship, you’ll see opportunities to strengthen your communication through active listening; cultivating neutral topics, shared experiences and observation of your teen.
When a group of parents gather, the conversation will invariably turn to the topic of teen communication. Maybe it begins with a self-conscious laugh and a joke. A few of us may roll our eyes in commiseration as we agree that talking with our teen is a tricky area to navigate. After a beat, the bravest or most desperate among us will admit that it’s, uh, a bit more than tricky.
Once the dam is breached on the topic of silent teens, every member of the parent group spills our real experience with an uncommunicative kid, the conversation gaining speed and vehemence:
“He won’t talk to me.”
“I have no idea what’s going on in her life”.
“I think he may be into something bad, but I don’t know how to ask.”
“What’s happening to my kid?”
Here’s what’s happened: that once-cuddly kid who used to follow you around like your shadow now avoids you like the plague. When required to be in your presence, your teen answers in monosyllabic grunts. These exchanges may sit like a stone in the pit of your stomach, leaving you anxious about why your teen sometimes appears to dislike the very air you breathe.
I don’t think it’s just me.
I measure the type of day I’m going to have with my son by his body language. The grim set of his jaw and the stiff, almost robotic stride gives me clues when he’s mad. Eyes on the floor, on the ceiling, anywhere but on me. He holds his body at an angle intended to discourage any impulsive hugs on my part. These signs tell me right away that it’s going to be a tough morning.
It’s 7:00 am. He’s already communicated a great deal. And yet, he still hasn’t spoken a word.
When possibilities for direct conversation aren’t happening, you can use clues to piece together a picture of how your teen is doing. Look for opportunities to extend communication and keep the door open for more.
Most teens vary in their communication styles; you can expect that some days, times and topics will be better than others. Sooner or later, if you set the stage for openness and remain neutral, you’ll see opportunities to strengthen your bond through seemingly insignificant conversations, shared experiences and observation of artifacts.
If this sounds a bit like anthropology, indeed it is. Finding ways to connect with your teen can be like studying a separate culture.
What skills do you Cultivate When Communicating with a Teen? Think Like a Scientist
You’ll observe your teen at home and in the wild. As a scientist, you’ll be alert for both verbal and nonverbal clues. You’ll gather data. You’ll avoid spooking your subject by keeping a careful distance when necessary. You’ll avoid displays of emotion (or impulsive hugging), ‘cause it just won’t help.
You’ll watch and wait for chances to connect on your teen’s terms. You’ll be firm on the terms you need to keep them safe and respectful of you. But you’ll be approachable, too.
A Little Perspective on Adolescence and Communication
As the Adult, You Can See the Big Picture
Between you and your teen, you are the adult and the only one with the long-view of life. You’re the one who understands the big picture: that your teen is entrenched in a life stage of adolescence. He will see some things clearly and other things through a muddy lens. It may be a difficult time for both of you, but it’s temporary. This is the knowledge that will help you keep your wits; your teen won’t necessarily understand the temporary nature of the condition.
The next time your teen says or does something irrational – or worse, says nothing at all – take 30 seconds to remind yourself that the section of the teen brain, the frontal cortex, which handles emotional regulation and planning will not be complete until age 25. In “Executive Function & Self-Regulation” researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard describe it this way:
“Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
Communication as a Lever of Control
Teens often feel as though they have little control over their lives. There’s a raft of rules to follow at home, at school. There’s a workload of increasingly complex assignments to complete as they navigate middle and high school curricula. Sports, activities, clubs? More rules. Rules, mandates and societal expectations form a constant tension between what they want to do and what they have to do.
Though they are growing more autonomous, much of a teen’s life is still directed by adults.
Yet the very nature of adolescence drives teens to seek independence. Encoded in our DNA is the urge to define a separate path from parents, to put aside activities of childhood, to grow up.
One of the areas in which teens do have control is communication. Answering in grunts or monosyllables may be a sign of passive resistance to your attempts to find out what’s happening in their lives. But it’s also a way to to exercise some control.
Does this graphic look familiar? The more you chase, the less they offer.
Improve Communication and Disrupt the Dynamic of Resistance
- Build a Family Routine Based on Mutual Respect
- Be aware of your teen’s energy cycles. Try to check in during times of higher energy and avoid raising hefty topics during times of low energy.
Like you, there are times throughout the day that she’ll be less likely to engage in conversation. In my house, I don’t talk in the morning until after a cup of coffee. Period. And if anyone requires my attention before that, they’ll have to accept some groggy gazing into space before I’ll respond.
The ideal time to talk to my daughter is right after cross-country practice. Her recent run does two things for her state of mind: she’s blown off steam created by the pressures of school. The endorphins from exercise also spark a lively back-and-forth exchange.
- Reserve time for family dinners. This is an important time to connect and communicate. Without a conscious decision to honor family dinner time, teens are likely to remain buried in homework and electronics, rushing to after-school activities and sports, eating fast food in the car. Yet, a dinner may be the one time in your busy day that you are face-to-face with your teen. Try to
- stick to a schedule of family dinners at least four-five times every week.
- Read the non-verbal signals. Respect your teen’s physical space and room. Honor a closed bedroom door as long as it’s not permanently closed to you. If you have to speak to your teen when they are clearly looking for alone time, ask them to set aside a few minutes in a little while, say 20 minutes. This approach short-circuits the reactive push-pull of demanding their attention immediately.
- Read their body language cues as to how much hugging they’ll allow. As much as it pains me, I ’ll sometimes settle for a pat on the shoulder if my prickly teen is sending spikey body language signals my way.
- Build ways to allow for increasing autonomy so they’re less likely to resort to information-hoarding. Give them some room to explore. Allow teens the room to make some mistakes and fix them on their own.
- Listen actively without passing judgment or interrupting. Try to avoid the trap of offering immediate solutions to your teen.
Active listening looks like this:
- Turn off any electronics that you’re using. Ideally, your teen would turn off her device also, but I wouldn’t demand it if the conversation is flowing.
- Make eye contact intermittently; not enough to make your teen uncomfortable, but enough to let her know you are focused on the conversation.
- Paraphrase what your teen has said. “So you think that the teacher was unfair when he…” or “You want to start learning to drive after…” This gives your teen the room to process thoughts, work through problems and also gives you the time to think about how to respond.
- Ask open-ended questions to clarify what your teen is saying.
- Avoid preaching or dominating the conversation.
- If your teen is asking for something from you, it’s reasonable to delay the decision until you’ve had time to think through what has been asked before you give an answer.
- By the same token, give your teen time to think through their decisions also. This can set the stage for a productive conversation in the future.
Cultivate a Range of Safe Topics
There are degrees of topic sensitivity with teens, and you probably know the hot-button issues like the back of your hand. If your daughter stomps off after a discussion about a friendship of which you don’t approve, it’s one to approach with tact in the future.
You can’t avoid the hot topics completely and still do your job as a parent, but you can try to balance those conversations with other, more neutral and positive discussions. Build up to a range of positive discussions so that you have a 3:1 ratio of positive to difficult discussions.
- Music – ask to share your teen’s favorite music. Offer to share music you enjoy. Ask open-ended and non-judgmental questions about the musician and lyrics.
- Movies – it’s often easier to discuss a plot of a movie before character motivations or choices. As a neutral conversation-starter, begin with the plot. Then, if your teen is receptive, you might analyze the characters a bit. This is a way to vicariously communicate your values without coming across as preachy.
- Other Neutral interests – sports teams; television shows; caring for your pet and food are all possible topics to keep the volume of conversation flowing
- Objects that seem important to your teen – is he holding onto that concert ticket for sentimental value? Do stuffed animals and other artifacts from childhood still linger in her room? Some of the best conversations that have drawn me closer to my teens have originated in a shared memory sparked by an innocuous object.
- Look for Conversational Opportunities with Limited eye contact. It may seem counterintuitive, but some of the best conversations may happen when you’re not staring directly into each other’s eyes. The lack of eye contact takes pressure off teens and helps them open up. See the following articles for other activities that can help Teaching Your Teen to Cook and The 5 Best Activities to Cure Teen Boredom
- Driving in the car, watching a sporting event, even keeping messy ice cream cones under control can all give you a chance for meaningful exchanges without the pressure of too much eye contact.
- Put it in writing – texting, writing notes, journaling can all be alternative ways to communicate and give each other room to process a message without confrontation.
Use Clues that don’t Require Direct conversation to Check in with Your Teen
- Body language – like my son, your teen provides a window into how they’re feeling through the way they move and through level of eye contact. Do they seem tired? Stressed? Silly? You can use the clues to broach a subject that may address their current state of mind or just add it to your mental picture of how your kid is doing.
- School performance-teacher and/or counselor feedback – keeping in contact with your teen’s school gives indicators on how well your kid is handling academic and social demands of school. This is valuable insight, as opportunities to see your teen in the native habitat of school can decrease greatly as they progress through middle and high school.
- Friends – how does your teen interact with friends? Are they connected through social media or do they socialize in person outside of school? Visible engagement in supportive friendships is a signal that your teen is on the right track. Conversely, lack of friendships is a cause for concern.
- Participates in family routines – willingness to participate in your family dinners, celebrations and events is another clue to your teen’s outlook. Engage them in the planning as much as possible. The more they have guided the decisions in types of food to serve presents to select, etc the more empowered they’ll feel like members of your family.
Maybe you’ve tried all these suggestions and they don’t appear to be helping improve communication with your teen. In the face of steady rejection by your teen, you’ll be tempted to give up on strengthening your relationship. A parent with a bruised ego may stop trying to connect. See also: Why is My Teenage Daughter So Mean to Me?
But don’t turn away. Despite all appearances, they still need you. As hard as it is at times, keep the lines open. Keep respecting them and expecting respect in return.
It is during this long-term phase that you need to think like a scientist with objectivity about what your teen is going through. It’s not about you, and remaining objective will let you keep focused on keeping the lines of communication as open as possible with your teen.
Turn to other support systems to get you through the drier communication spells with your teen. Explore a new hobby or interest that doesn’t place your teen in the exact center of your universe.
When Should I Worry?
How can you tell if your teen is exhibiting a garden variety case of distant teen or if something more serious is going on? Here are signs to watch for:
Visit the Academy of American Pediatrics for mental health resources. You may need more help if your teen:
- Seems isolated from friends and family
- Doesn’t participate in activities previously enjoyed
- Is not sleeping consistently
- Is missing meals; losing weight
- Seems unfocused and/or depressed
- Seems aggressive or inclined to self-harm
- You suspect alcohol and/or drug use
A call to your pediatrician can ease your mind or take the next steps to get a referral for some help.
You’ve Got This!
Setting the stage for a supportive and respectful relationship helps you get closer to your teen. We offer this compilation of commonsense tips to give a blueprint to how to build this bond. The most important part of the process? Patience and neutral observation. This perspective is the cornerstone to help you to separate just enough from your teens’ transformation to let you stay present and aware of the big picture. See also: The 6 Best Ways to Build Lasting Trust with My Teen
Are you looking for ways to bond with your teen? The 5 Best Activities to Cure Teenage Boredom
See also: Are You a Parent Samurai?