If you’re the parent of a teenager and feel that communication has broken down, an important first consideration is why communication has fallen apart. Here are four common, and often over-looked, reasons that teens avoid talking with their parents.
1.) NATURAL DEVELOPMENT
Any developmental psychologist will tell you that the hallmark of the adolescent years is the pursuit of identity and the biological drive toward seeking independence. These are not choices teens make, they are based on human development and instinct. This can often be a difficult transition to grasp for parents that (until now) are accustomed to their children relying on them for nearly everything. And with such reliance usually comes open communication and dialogue between parent and child. Parents know just about everything that goes on in their child’s life: who their friends are, performance in school, hobbies, interests, dreams, etc…until kids enter those pivotal teen years.
Since teenagers are new to the idea of independence, their efforts to obtain it are mostly trial and error. As a result, often the first instinct a teenager exhibits is to distance his/her self from their parent(s). This includes such behaviors as: intentionally doing the opposite of one’s parents, questioning rules and expectations, resisting or outright rejecting parental advice, and a notable drop in communication.
Teens begin to shift their focus from family to friends when it comes to advice, emotional support, camaraderie, and bonding. These are the first strides teens take toward individuation—which is considered the healthiest form of independence. As adults, individuation is represented by people who are independent, competent, self-reliant, and yet are able to ask for help and support from others. In order for teenagers to achieve individuation, parents have to embrace the most terrifying of activities: learning to let go.
To clarify, “letting go” doesn’t mean handing your teenager the keys to the car, a wad of cash, and saying “good luck with your life.” It means empowering teens to develop life skills through their own experience. There are number of ways to help your teen to feel empowered, but here are two of the big ones.
Decision-Making: Seize every possible opportunity to encourage your teen to make as many age–appropriate decisions as possible. This gives teens a sense of control over their lives and builds confidence in their judgment and ability to make good choices.
Give them some space: Take a step back, both literally and figuratively, to see what your teenager can do. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. Teenagers desperately need this time to learn to problem-solve and become more self-reliant. Be sure not to step too far back, teens thrive on the knowledge that a parent is right behind them if they need support. And when your teen does seek your counsel, it’s important to avoid shaming him/her by meeting them with empathy rather than judgment or a lecture.
2.) FEAR OF JUDGMENT
Nobody likes to be judged. Especially teenagers. Especially by their parents. As a parent, it’s more than likely you are aware that teenagers are not only hypersensitive emotionally and often insecure about who they are, but have an impossibly strong drive toward acceptance. Interestingly, teens don’t just crave acceptance by their peers, but by their parents as well.
Judgment is a form of rejection, the opposite of acceptance. So if a teenager is crying out for acceptance and is afraid you as a parent might judge him/her, that teenager is far less likely to approach you to talk. It’s hard enough to be rejected by your peers, but when a teen feels rejected by a parent it becomes a betrayal. The scary part is that parents often don’t even realize they’re doing it.
In my work I have observed countless instances where parents make judgmental comments to their teenage child about his/her interests, choices in friends, use of free time, even appearance. Regardless of circumstance, parents represent two crucial themes to their kids that cannot be betrayed if you want to foster a healthy family relationship: safety, and unwavering acceptance.
If you are a parent, you don’t need to share your child’s interests in order to appreciate them. You don’t have to dress like your daughter to know she has style. And you don’t need to account for every second of your son’s free time so long as you know he is safe and responsible. If you can make space in your heart and mind to accept your teenager’s differences rather than judge them, you will find a much stronger bond.
To help your teenager feel more accepted, you as a parent need to do only one thing: embrace their weirdness. Whatever your child is into (assuming it is not something dangerous or harmful) be curious about it, try to find the merits in it, and join in with them when possible.
Example: If your teenage son plays video games like they are going out of style (which he probably does), ask to watch, ask to play, learn more about the games he is interested in.
Example: If your daughter is upset about something seemingly trivial a friend posted on social media, resist the sigh and eye-roll that often accompanies parental attitudes toward “Millennial Drama.” This is the reality of the world teens live in, embrace it and the closer you will become.
3.) NOT LOOKING FOR A SOLUTION
Parents are by far the most influential figures in a young person’s development. Yes, friends, siblings, and mentors are important, but nothing compares to the power of MOM & DAD. Parents are the verbal and non-verbal role models kids observe every day to determine how to exist in this world. As a result, parents quickly realize that their children look to them for instruction, solutions to problems, and knowledge about how the world works. Since this dynamic is repeated constantly for years as a child grows up, it becomes a well-learned routine.
However, as stated above regarding a teenager’s natural development, teens start seeking independence, which means finding their own answers. Unfortunately, most parents aren’t prepared for this sudden shift and default to their normal routine of trying to solve the problem.
Example:A 14-year-old boy comes home from school looking gloomy, avoiding his mother’s gaze.
MOTHER – Hey, how was school?
SON – Fine.
MOTHER – What’s wrong, honey?
SON – Nothing, I’m fine!
MOTHER – Oh, come on. You’re clearly upset. Tell me what happened.
SON – It’s just that I haven’t been able to make any friends at my new school. It sucks. I sit alone at lunch like a loser.
MOTHER –I’m sorry, honey. You know…tomorrow you should go talk to that Jason boy you mentioned last week. Or maybe you can try out for a sports team? Or maybe you can join a club?
SON – Yeah, I guess. But it’s whatever…
The son promptly gets more irritated, shuts down, and heads to his room. Why? Because he wasn’t looking for his mother to solve his problem.
If your teenager entrusts you with his/her private dilemmas, this is a big responsibility on the part of the parent to handle it appropriately. What I’ve noticed throughout my work is that teenagers usually just want support, not solutions. They want to feel competent enough to find the answer to their own problem while feeling safely held (emotionally) by their parent(s). Here are some alternative responses the mother from the example above could have used that might be more effective:
I’m sorry to hear that honey. Are you okay?
Do you want to talk about it?
Do you need some space?
Yeah, that really stinks. Let me know if you need me.
I’m here if you want to talk.
What do you want to do about it?
Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?
4.) REACTIVE PARENTS
There are two ways human beings can reply to incoming information: reacting or responding. Though they may sound similar, they are completely different. A reaction is quick, based solely on emotion and instinct. A response is slower, based on carefully considering the appropriate reply. Because a reaction comes from our instinctive brain, it serves only us, not the source of the information to which we are reacting.
EXAMPLE: A teenage daughter brings home a report card with several F’s and sheepishly hands it to her father. The father, to whom academics are extremely important, can’t believe his daughter failed so many subjects. Consequently, the father is instantly disappointed, and begins yelling and lecturing.
Guess which parent (if any) that teenage girl will approach with the next report card. Hint: it’s not going to be dad.
Emotional reactivity, more than any other factor I have come across, is the primary reason why teenagers don’t approach their parents with problems, concerns, or trust them with their secrets. Put quite simply, highly reactive parents are unsafe. What’s worse is that this dynamic can foster unhealthy habits in teens such as chronic lying to avoid punishment and developing their own explosive reactivity.
Responding is far more difficult, and requires a higher degree of patience and restraint. To respond to your teenager appropriately, there is one main question you should ask yourself: Is what I am about to say the best thing to help my child? This does not suggest the father has no right to be angry with his daughter for her poor academic performance, but when it comes to anger, remember this philosophy: tell don’t show.
We already know how showing your anger, such as yelling or lecturing, can negatively impact a parent-teen relationship. So how does a parent let their child know how they feel without reacting? Let’s use the same example of the report card from above.
When father sees his daughter’s poor grades, he looks up at her and in a calm voice says the following:
“I’m really disappointed and angry about this. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Where do you think you had the most trouble?”
More constructive and empowering responses than lecturing would be:
“What can WE do differently next time to improve your grades?”
“What can I do to help you succeed?”
A final note to parents. Be patient not just with your teenager, but with yourself. This is really tough stuff that often has a ton of emotional weight and family history behind it. The tools I’ve laid out can definitely help, but just like developing teens learning independence, it is going to be mostly trial and error.