Why is It So Hard to Get a Teen to Talk?

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Disclaimer: This is a conversation between me (Anna, Rooted parent editor) and my son Mac (a college junior) that took place after much nagging on my part. It is by no means representative of all relationships between parents and their kids, but rather a look into one parent-child relationship from both perspectives.

Mom: Why is it so hard for parents to get their teens to talk to them?

Mac: Did you talk to your parents when you were a kid?

Mom: Hmmm. Have to plead the fifth on that one. Since you and your brothers think I have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager, I would have to say I don’t remember.

Seriously, this is something that is hard for parents. When you boys were in elementary school, you told me about your day, your friends, the bad and good things that were going on. How can a mom keep that conversation going when her kids get older?

Mac: What is it you want me to talk about?

Mom: Some days I would settle for almost anything! I would like to know anything from what your day was really like, to what you think about your teachers, to what is really bothering you. I think that’s the hardest thing- when a parent can tell her child is struggling, and the kid either denies there’s a problem, or won’t share what that problem is. No parent is ever fooled when she says “what’s wrong?” and the child says “nothing.”

Mac: Ok, so I guess to preface I’ll tell you what you already know, and that’s that I’m a pretty private person, and while I probably should let people in more, don’t take it personally when I don’t feel like talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Mom; Okay, fair enough. I do take it personally and that’s my self-centeredness at work.

Mac: Yes that is your bad. Shame on you. I’ll also admit that on some small hidden level, I almost enjoy keeping you out of the loop just because I can tell you want to know so badly.

Mom: (Eye roll, but mouth shut. I am learning.)

Mac: But there are also plenty of times when I’d come home from ten hours of school + practice, and the last thing I want to do is talk about how my day went. I want (lots of) food and a long shower and time to myself (but that may just be me). Asking me “how was your day” as I walk in the door isn’t going to be me at my most talkative. So I guess timing is important. Not to say “thou shalt sit in silence as I come home from school,” but maybe just be aware that that’s not a great time for anything more than a “hi…bye” conversation.

Mom: So when is a good time to talk? And how do I ask “what’s wrong?” without making you defensive?

Mac: I suppose the dinner table is always a good place, but I’m also less likely to tell you anything all that personal in front of my brothers. I think more specific questions are always better than simply “how was your day,” but finding neutral, common ground to talk about goes a long way in any conversation. It will likely take initiative on your part, but even if you don’t know a lick about the Green Bay Packers, asking me about Aaron Rodgers is a good way to get a conversation going.

I also think that you–and probably parents in general–are guardian worriers over their children. I think you suspect something is wrong more often than it actually is, but I guess I can’t hold your concern against you. I think that if something really was wrong, I would be the one to come to you. That being said, I think that while I might get annoyed whenever you express your concern, it’s comforting in the long run to know you care. Even if I don’t reciprocate, your persistent attempts to talk to me mean a lot. Keep asking, even if I keep shutting you down.

Mom: It’s tough for parents not to worry about their kids. The world you are growing up in, with all the social media and the pressure and all- your world just seems very different from the world I grew up in. I went from knowing literally everything about you — I fed you every single bite of food, and then I changed every diaper — to literally not having a clue what is going on in your head. The only thing that has kept me from going crazy with worry is knowing that I can pray for you. God does know what you are thinking, how you are feeling, what you are facing. I have had to accept the fact that I do not need to know everything about you because God does.

Mac: That makes a lot of sense. And usually I’m not trying to keep you out, but I don’t see it from your perspective. Other than just being tight-lipped or tired, I think one of the main reasons kids don’t tell their parents things because they don’t want their parents to freak out. So many of the problems I faced were extremely trivial, and I wanted to address them on my own rather than bring you into it. I also think we worry that parents will make a big deal out of small things.

Mom: I think sometimes you think I am “freaking out” when I’m not.

Mac: Maybe that’s true, but I still like to fix things on my own (which is certainly an area of pride that I struggle with). Additionally, I think that we worry about what parents tell other parents. High school carries enough drama on its own among students, and it’s crazy to hear some of the rumors spreading between parents. I think I always trusted you, but the thought was still on my mind.

I guess all in all, I’d say be conscious of when you’re trying to start conversations, be persistent but patient, and be someone we can trust. Additionally, I think it’s easier to get us to open up if we don’t feel like we’re sitting down for a CIA interrogation. Get me out of the house if you want to talk. We can run an errand, or eat dinner out together, but something where the mood is lighter (but I can’t escape). Trap me without me realizing it, if that makes any sense.

As a final, perhaps more hopeful thought, I think it’s important to note that I opened up to you a lot more after I left for college. Everyone is different with how they communicate with their parents, but I think that a little breathing space ended up helping our relationship. I was better able to recognize that neither of us were aware of what the other was up to, and I think we’ve become a lot closer in spite of the distance.

Mom: The day you texted “can I call you in a minute? Want to get your thoughts about something” was one of the happiest days of my entire life. I took a screenshot of that text, and I still have it. And you’re my oldest, so you’re my guinea pig, poor guy. I am still learning about the different seasons of parenting, how some things are meant to change and evolve. God never planned for you to tell your mommy everything. I’m just trying to learn to trust Him with grown-up you.

(One final note from the Editor: We actually had this conversation in real time on Google Docs while sitting on the same couch. In other words, we parents have to get creative about getting our kids to open up, and technology just might be helpful. Whatever it takes. Hang in there. I agree with Mac: over time, our conversations have become more frequent and honestly more satisfying. As with so many other aspects of parenting, persistence pays off when it comes to communication.)

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