One of the complaints I hear most from clients and friends with teens is that their kids don’t communicate like they used to. What was previously a sweet little kid is now an angsty teen!
If you have found yourself dealing with a teen or pre-teen who is increasingly non-communicative and closed off, consider trying some of these practical tips to improve your parent-child relationship.
1. Try Directive Questions
Most people are familiar with the concept of open- versus closed-ended questions. As a review, closed-ended questions can be answered with a simple “yes/no” while open-ended questions can’t. In other words, it’s better to ask your teen “how did school go today?” than “did you have a good day at school?” because the second is easily answered by a dismissive “yeah” as they walk past you and into their room. These simpler questions decrease the likelihood of your teen elaborating on his or her initial response.
Still, parents find their teens answering even the most well-intentioned open-ended questions with “fine” or “good” and end up feeling just as dismissed and disconnected as before. Instead, try directive questions. These questions are the type used by skilled journalists to get a thorough response to their inquiries. “Tell me about school today!” or “help me understand what you’re learning about in algebra right now” are examples of more directive, open-ended questions. As always, be clear about your expectation for a response.
2. Avoid Rewarding Anti-Social Behavior — Wait for a Response!
There are few things more uncomfortable than an awkward silence during a conversation! If you’re anything like me, you cringe at the thought of causing that awkwardness in a social setting. But teens recognize the power of this discomfort. They have learned that adults have a habit of “filling the silence,” which empowers them to ignore your questions.
Because of our ties to traditional social convention, when a question is met with “yeah. *silence*” parents feel the instinct to rephrase their inquiry, or worse, change the subject. If your teen’s curt response is evidence of their desire to skirt your question, then your teen has just succeeded if you chose to change the subject! Don’t reward their manipulation of you with a subject change or even a rephrased question; simply wait for a response. In my clinical work with teens and pre-teens, the lesson is quickly learned: silence and one-word responses are not sufficient.
3. Put the Phone Down
If you’re a parent, teen, or human with the ability to see, you’ve noticed the increasing popularity of smartphone use among children. Many of the parents I’ve spoken to are frustrated with their teen’s seemingly non-stop smartphone use. Fairly often, we don’t have to look very far to see where a teen picked up this behavior. These days, hearing a notification, picking up your phone, replying to the text, and putting your phone back — all while continuing an in-person conversation with another human being — is considered fairly normative behavior.
If you are a parent who is frustrated by your teen’s non-stop smartphone use, “let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone” and instead, start intervening by modeling the behavior you’d like to see. If you’d like to institute a “no phones at the dinner table” type policy, take the first step by clearly demonstrating that you are also turning your phone off.
Long-term, this type of solidarity will assuage your teen’s inflated sense of justice and help mitigate the imminent “that’s not fair!” argument when he or she feels like you are not beholden to your own rules.
4. Dispense with the Notion of the “Angsty Teen”
A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that parental beliefs that typical teens were friendly and pro-social overall were associated with higher levels of psychological well-being for both the parents and their teens. Of course, with this finding and much of psychological research as a whole, causation cannot be drawn from correlation. But, from a practical perspective, it can’t hurt to try to view your teen in a more positive, pro-social light.
Try to remember what you love about your teen. Try to remember that deep inside they’re still just that sweet little kid you know and love. And as with all difficult phases in raising kids, try to remember: this too shall pass.
Silva, K., Torres, R., Friedrich, E., Thiel, M. F., Ford, C., & Miller, V. (2019). 213. associations between parental beliefs about adolescence, parent-teen communication, and psychological well- being. Journal of Adolescent Health, 64(2), S108-S109. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.10.230