A common complaint among parents is that their children stop talking to them during adolescence. This may occur because your child is struggling to become independent. Teens will want and need more privacy than they did as small children. They will be formulating their own thoughts and feelings and figuring out how to deal with their ever-changing world. As a parent, you may want to help your child with a problem by talking about the situation. Most of the time, teenagers won’t want to talk about their problems because they want to work it out on their own. Your teen may also be silent because “the wires of communication in your family are somehow crossed,” note Laurence Steinberg and Ann Levine, authors of You and Your Adolescent. To get your teenager to open up and talk to you, those wires will need to be uncrossed. Although it will take some time, simply modifying the way you talk to teens can change the way they talk to you.
The Things You Say. The things you say and how you say them may determine whether or not your teen talks to you. Steinberg and Levine offer the following example.
Your adolescent comes home from school looking blue. How do you respond? Are you critical, saying, “What did you do this time?” Do you offer empty reassurances such as, “This time next week you won’t even remember today”? Are you too quick to give advice like “Moping around won’t help, why don’t you go for a bike ride”?
All of these responses will close the door to communication. They make it sound as if you think you have all the answers without knowing the questions. In general, a teenager thinks that his parents don’t understand what his life is like, and responses like the above will solidify that belief.
The Time You Take. In some families, the problem is not that family members don’t talk and listen to one another—but that they won’t. Every member of your family may be so busy that there is seldom time to sit down and visit. And no one will make time to be available for a heart-to-heart talk. Your teen may want to share his thoughts and feelings with you but may fear being pushed aside or rejected.
You may not have the above concerns. You may have the time to talk to your teen, and you are careful about how you say things. You’ve tried everything possible—from forcing her to tell you things and bribing her to share—to refusing to talk to her, all of which only made things worse. The following sections introduce some things you can do to improve your communication.
Getting your teen to talk is not impossible, but it takes time to change behavior. You may feel uncomfortable approaching your teen, and he may not feel safe enough to share his feelings, state Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay, authors of Parenting Teenagers. The more effort you put into communicating, the better you will become. Your adolescent may still refrain from opening up to you. If this is the case, you have to take the initiative. The following suggestions will help you begin conversations with your teenager.
Ask for comments. Inquire about your teenager’s day, things that interest him, or his opinion on certain issues. Be sure not to pry or grill him about his life. If he chooses not to answer or is abrupt, respect his decision but continue to show interest at other times. Sometimes a simple question will start a real conversation.
Be a model. Don’t expect your teen to do all of the sharing. Show her that it is okay to share feelings by sharing some of your own. Limit your comments to areas that aren’t a source of conflict between the two of you. Talk about your job, your friends, sports, or a movie you’ve seen. You may find out you share similar feelings about some things.
Create time to communicate. If you are early risers, the breakfast table offers a great conversation place. If an issue concerns the entire family, discuss it during dinner. For a more private discussion, stop by his room before bedtime. Be sure to knock first!
Make a guess about nonverbal messages. Comment on her facial expression or body posture. Your teen may deny that she had a particular expression, especially if it was unpleasant. When this happens, accept her reply and try again later.
Provide time for your teen to decide whether or not to talk. Hesitation may mean the subject is difficult for him to discuss. He also has a right to keep his thoughts and problems to himself.
Say what you mean. When you become frustrated or angry, it is difficult to speak your mind clearly. Saying what you feel will be much more effective in getting your teen to talk than blaming or shaming him.
Show your teen that you're interested. Demonstrate interest by using eye contact and involved body posture, such as leaning forward or touching her arm. If you are just beginning to work on communication skills, it will take some time to build mutual trust. Once she knows you are there for her, she will begin to open up more.
Use “I” statements. “I” statements are nonjudgmental statements of how we feel about a particular action or situation. “You” statements are evaluations of the other person’s motives, character, or attitudes. An “I” statement allows your adolescent the option of changing his behavior without losing face. A “you” statement, in contrast, backs him into a corner where he has only two choices: knuckling under or fighting back. Saying how you feel also closes off rebuttals. Your teenager can argue a statement about his motives and intentions, but you are the expert on your feelings.
The following is a simple formula for “I” statements: “When you ___________ (describe the behavior in a nonjudgmental manner), I feel _____________ (disclose your feelings) because __________ (clarify the effect of this behavior on your life).” To clarify how to formulate an “I” message, each section will be discussed.
When describing the behavior that bothers you, try to be specific. Refer to the clothes on the floor rather than saying his room is a total mess. Be objective and avoid character attacks and generalizations. It is important to be brief. You are more likely to get your message across if you stick to one issue at a time. As an example, Steinberg and Levine provide the following.
If you say to your son, “I feel angry when you get so wrapped up in a football game that you forget about the family and come home late and all dirty,” it is hard for him to know what’s making you angry. Are you saying you don’t want him to play football or that you don’t want him to care so much about sports? Do you not want him to spend time with his friends? Do you object to his being late? Do you wish he’d clean up before coming to the table?
When disclosing your feelings, try to use a word that accurately reflects your exact feelings. Angry is stronger than annoyed, and upset is different than frustrated. Worried and afraid carry different messages. Parents tend to overuse one or two emotions, especially anger. When your teenager forgets to tell you that she is spending the night with a friend, your first reaction is likely to be fear. When your fear is relieved, you get angry because she caused you such a fright. She will be more likely to see your point of view when you communicate your first reaction, not just the anger.
When describing the effects of your teen’s behavior, be as concrete as you can. Focus on the way his behavior cost you money, damaged your possessions, wasted your time, caused you extra work, or interfered with your activities. Adolescents are much more likely to change their behavior if they can see that something they did interfered with your legitimate rights.
Using a formula to communicate with your child might seem awkward at first, but with practice, you should be able to fit an “I” statement into a sentence. If you overuse these statements, your teenager may pick up on what you are doing and resist your attempts to communicate. But if you persist, saying what you mean will become more and more natural, understanding in your family will increase, and fewer issues will escalate into battles. Ultimately, your teen will be more willing to share.
Dinkmeyer, D. and G. McKay. (1990). Parenting Teenagers. Circle Pines, Minnesota: American Guidance.
Steinberg, L., Ph.D. and A. Levine. (1991). You and Your Adolescent. New York: HarperPerennial.