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When Teens Refuse to Talk to Parents

"My teenage daughter has stopped talking to us. She just shuts us out. What can I do to get her to open up?"

Teenagers often aren't great communicators, particularly with their moms and dads and other grown-ups who love them. Adolescents often feel they can talk with anyone better than their mother or father. They tend to be private, and don't necessarily want to tell parents what they did at school today.

Many psychologists have found, however, that when moms and dads know where their kids are and what they are doing (and when the teen knows the parent knows), teens are at a lower risk for a range of problems (e.g., drug, alcohol and tobacco use; sexual behavior and pregnancy; delinquency and violence, etc.). The key is to be inquisitive – but not interfering. Work to respect your youngster's privacy as you establish trust and closeness. It's easiest to communicate with an adolescent if you established this habit when your youngster was little. You don't suddenly dive in during the 9th grade and say, “So what did you do with your friends last night?”

But it's not impossible to improve communication when your youngster reaches the teenage years. Here are some tips:

1. Avoid over–reacting. Responding too strongly can lead to yelling, and it can shut down conversation. Try to keep anxiety and emotions out of the conversation—then most children will open up. Instead of getting angry, it's better to ask, “What do you think about what you did? Let's talk about this.” Children are more likely to be open if they look at you as somebody who is not going to spread their secrets or get extremely upset if they confess something to you. For example, if your kid says, “I've got to tell you something. Friday night I tried smoking pot,” and you go off the deep end, he won't tell you again. At a time when they are already judging themselves critically, teens make themselves vulnerable when they open up to moms and dads. You already know that the best way to encourage a behavior is to reward it. If you are critical when your son talks to you, what he sees is that his openness gets punished rather than rewarded.

2. Communicate with kindness and respect. Adolescents can say or do things that are outrageous and mean-spirited. However hard your youngster pushes your buttons, it's best to respond calmly. The respect and self-control that you display in talks with your youngster may someday be reflected in her conversations with others. How you say something is as important as what you say. Communicating with respect also requires not talking down to teens. They are becoming more socially conscious and aware of events in the world, and they appreciate thoughtful conversations.

3. Create opportunities to talk. To communicate with your youngster, you need to make yourself available. Teens resist "scheduled" talks. They don't open up when you tell them to, but when they “want” to. Some adolescents like to talk when they first get home from school. Others may like to talk at the dinner table or at bedtime. Some moms and dads talk with their kids in the car. Moms and dads need to grab odd moments and have deep communication with their teenagers.

4. Just listen. You need to spend a lot of time not talking. Listening means to avoid interrupting and to pay close attention. This is best done in a quiet place with no distractions. It's hard to listen carefully if you're also trying to cook dinner or watch television. Often just talking with your youngster about a problem or an issue helps to clarify things. Sometimes the less you offer advice, the more your adolescent will ask you for it. Listening can also be the best way to uncover a more serious problem that requires your attention.

5. Realize that no magic tip exists for successful communication. What works for getting one youngster to talk about what's important doesn't always work with another one.

6. Talk over differences. Communication breaks down for some moms and dads because they find it hard to manage differences with their youngster. It's often easiest to limit these differences when you have put in place clear expectations. For example, if your 14-year-old son knows he's to be home by 9:00 p.m.—and if he knows the consequences for not meeting this curfew—the likelihood that he will be home on time increases. Differences of opinion are easier to manage when we recognize that these differences can provide important opportunities for us to rethink the limits and to negotiate new ones, a skill that is valuable for your youngster to develop. When differences arise, telling your youngster your concerns firmly but calmly can prevent differences from becoming battles. Explaining why your youngster made - or wants to make - a poor choice is more constructive (e.g., “Dropping out of your algebra class will cut off lots of choices for you in the future. Some colleges won't admit you without two years of algebra. Let's get you some help with algebra.").

7. Talk about things that are important to your adolescent. Different youngsters like to talk about different things. Some of the things they talk about may not seem important to you, but with teenagers, sometimes it's like a different culture. You need to try to understand this, to put yourself in their place and time. Don’t pretend to be excited about something that bores you. By asking questions and listening, however, you can show your youngster that you respect her feelings and opinions. Here are topics that generally interest teens:
  • Culture and current events: Ours is a media-rich world. Even young kids are exposed to television, music, movies, video and computer games and other forms of media. Remember, though, that the media can provide a window into your teen's world. For example, if you and your youngster have seen the same movie (together or separately), you can ask her whether she liked it and what parts she liked best.
  • Emotions: Teens worry about a lot of different things. They worry about their friends, being popular, sexuality, being overweight or scrawny, tomorrow's math test, grades, getting into college, being abandoned and the future of the world, and so on. Sometimes it's hard to know if a problem seems big to your youngster. If your child is unsure, you can ask questions like, "Is this a small problem, a medium problem or a big problem? How important is it to you? How often do you worry about it?" Figuring out the size and importance of the problem helps your child decide how to address it.
  • Family: Teens like to talk about - and be involved in - plans for the whole family, (e.g., vacations) as well as things that affect them individually (e.g., curfews or allowances). If, for example, you need change jobs, your youngster will want to know ahead of time. She may also want to learn more about your new job. Being a part of conversations about such topics can contribute to your youngster's feelings of belonging and security.
  • Hobbies and personal interests: If your youngster loves sports, talk about his favorite team or event or watch the World Series or the Olympics with him. Most teens are interested in music. Music has been the signature of every generation. It defines each age group. Moms and dads ought to at least know the names of popular singers. It's important, however, to tell your youngster when you believe that the music he is listening to is inappropriate—and to explain why. Your silence can be misconstrued as approval.
  • Parents’ lives, hopes and dreams: Many teens want a window to their mother’s and father’s world, both past and present (e.g., How old were you when you got your ears pierced? Did you ever have a teacher who drove you crazy? Did you get an allowance when you were 11? If so, how much? Were you sad when your grandpa died? What is your boss like at work?). This doesn't mean you are obligated to dump all of your problems and emotions into your youngster's lap. You are the parent – not a “buddy,” and an inappropriate question may best be left answered. However, recounting some things about your childhood and your life today can help your youngster sort out his own life.
  • School: If you ask your youngster, "What did you do in school today?" …she most likely will answer, "Nothing." Of course, you know that isn't true. By looking at your youngster's assignment book or reading notices sent home by the school, you will know that on Friday, your child began studying the Civil War or that the homecoming football game is next week. With this information, you then can ask your youngster about specific classes or activities, which is more likely to start a conversation.
  • Sensitive subjects: Families should handle sensitive subjects in a way that is consistent with their values. Remember, though, that avoiding such subjects won't make them go away. If you avoid talking with your youngster about sensitive subjects, she may turn to the media or her friends for information. This increases the chances that what she hears will be out of line with your values or that the information will be wrong.
  • The future: As the cognitive abilities of teens develop, they begin to think more about the future and its possibilities. Your youngster may want to talk more about what to expect in the years to come (e.g., life after high school, jobs and marriage). She may ask questions like, "What is it like to live in a college dormitory?" "How old do you have to be to get married?" "Is there any chance that the world will blow up some day?" "Will there be enough gasoline so that I can drive a car when I get older?" These questions deserve the best answers that you can provide (and those that you can't answer deserve an honest, "I don't know.").

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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