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WHATEVER: Communicating with Your Reluctant Teen

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

Blog: Communication with your reluctant teen.

Parents, guardians, and anyone working with adolescents can relate to the frustrating experience of trying to strike up a conversation with a teenager only to be met with a nonchalant shrug or a one-word response. It's a scene that plays out in countless households: teens return from school, sports, or clubs, and adults eagerly inquire "How was your day?". The typical reply? "Fine" or "Good", followed by a retreat into the digital world, leaving the well-intentioned question hanging in the air. But what lies beneath this seemingly uncommunicative veneer is a hidden plea for more profound engagement – a plea that translates to, "How was your day? ...but actually."

Understanding the teenage mind is crucial in breaking through these communication barriers. The adolescent brain doesn't fully mature until the mid-to-late twenties, with the prefrontal cortex, responsible for skills like planning and decision-making, being one of the last areas to develop (NAMI, 2023). As a result, teenagers often find it challenging to articulate their thoughts and emotions. However, there are strategies that parents and caregivers can employ to bridge this gap and foster better communication.

1. Open-Ended Questions: Encourage Expression

One effective approach is to replace closed-ended questions with open-ended ones. Instead of asking, "How was your day?" which typically elicits a one-word response, try phrasing it as, "Tell me about your day." or “tell me about—-” This simple shift encourages your teen to share more details and allows for a more expansive and meaningful conversation. By giving them room to express themselves, you open the door to deeper connections.

2. Cultivate Curiosity: Show Genuine Interest

In an era dominated by social media and ever-evolving trends, it's easy for adults to feel disconnected from their teen's daily life. To bridge this generational gap, it's essential to convey genuine interest in your teen's world. Ask questions that demonstrate curiosity about their interests, hobbies, and concerns. Encourage them to share their thoughts and ideas on topics that matter to them. Follow up with questions like, "What do you think about that?" This not only shows that you care but also helps them solidify their own values and opinions (Center for Parent and Teen Communication, 2023).

3. Supportive Follow-Up: Connect to Trusted Adults

Sometimes adolescents may not feel comfortable discussing certain issues with their parents or guardians. In such cases, it's vital to introduce them to supportive role models who can serve as trusted confidants. Coaches, teachers, extended family members, or therapists can fill this role. You can broach the topic by saying, "Are you comfortable talking to me about this, or would you prefer to discuss it with another trusted person?" If they opt for the latter, offer to connect them with a therapist, teacher, coach or other adult as a non-judgmental, third-party listener.

4. Plant Seeds (create opportunities to connect)

Sometimes we need to plant a lot of seeds to make just one plant grow. What we mean by that is to keep creating opportunities for you and your teen to talk. It could be on a ride to school, doing errands or some other mundane task. Don’t be afraid to ask and inquire with them. Ninety percent of the time you may be met with the shortest answers that we already mentioned; “fine”, “good”, “ok”. If we keep giving our teens opportunities to connect, without pressure, they may just surprise us on occasion.

4. Seek Professional Help When Needed.

Teenagers often face a myriad of challenges, from academic stress to social pressures and emotional upheavals. As parents or caregivers, it's essential to recognize when your teenager might need professional assistance. Sometimes communication barriers may be a sign of deeper emotional or mental health issues. If you notice persistent signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or significant changes in behavior, it's crucial to prioritize your teen's mental health.

Don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional who specializes in adolescent issues. They can provide a safe and confidential space for your teenager to express their feelings and concerns. Additionally, a mental health professional can equip both you and your teen with valuable tools and strategies to navigate these challenging years.

Remember, seeking help from a mental health professional is a sign of strength, not weakness. It demonstrates your commitment to your teenager's well-being and underscores the importance of addressing mental health concerns promptly.

In conclusion, communicating with reluctant teens requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to adapt your approach. By using open-ended questions, showing genuine curiosity about their lives, and connecting them with trusted adults, you can break down communication barriers and strengthen your relationship with your teenager. Remember, behind their seemingly uninterested facade lies a world of thoughts and emotions waiting to be shared. So the next time you ask, "How was your day?" be prepared to stop and really listen, and you may just discover the hidden stories and concerns your teenager longs to share.

Amanda Cioffi, LCSW

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