When Your Teenager Won’t Talk to You
Sometimes, when your kids are little, it seems that questions multiply like rabbits. One question leads to another, then two more, then four more… so quickly that parents long for the luxury of answering one question at a time.
And then the kids become teenagers, and their silence is deafening.
Trying to reconnect with a tight-lipped teenager can feel like an exercise in futility. We worry about what’s going on inside their heads, but our anxiety only drives them further away. And yet, even when we are greeted with stone-cold silence, our curiosity as parents can be the best way to love and care for them.
God Himself sets our example when He comes to Adam and Eve in the garden, knowing full well they have just disobeyed Him to the destruction of all mankind. Instead of blasting them to hell in justified rage or launching into a lecture or subjecting them to stony, shaming silence, He asks a simple question: “where are you?”
When God asks a question, He’s not looking for information. He is greater than our hearts and He knows all things, so there’s nothing He stands to gain from asking (1 John 3:20). Yet God has a habit of asking His children questions, especially when they are hurting from the effects of sin – their own or someone else’s:
To Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:9)
To Hagar in the wilderness: “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16: 8)
To Elijah in the cave: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9)
To Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8)
To Jonah: “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
To Saul (Paul): “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)
In a remarkable display of love and humility, God asks questions because He wants to restore relationship. Hear the vulnerability in Jesus’ question to his disciples, which He also asks to us: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20). He does not compel the disciples’ response, nor will He compel ours, and yet He longs to hear us say the words that will restore us to Himself: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)
Being the good Father that he is, God uses questions with His children to call us to maturity and connection. Curiosity can open those same doors with our own kids.
Curiosity is an invitation to growth.
God asks a question when His child needs to form an answer. God’s question requires Cain to accept responsibility for killing Abel, while also offering him a way to confess (Genesis 4:9). The question God poses to Hagar makes her feel seen and known while allowing her room to lament her helpless situation (Genesis 16:8). Isaiah, awestruck and convicted to the core by his vision of God’s holiness, receives his question like a lifeline: “Pick me!” he cries, “I will go!” (Isaiah 6:8). In every instance, God’s question is an offer of grace, an opportunity to grow and to share oneself.
In the same way, we can invite our children to articulate their developing thoughts, feelings, and opinions with a person who will love them no matter what .
Curiosity strengthens relationship; questions confer dignity.
The simple act of asking a question signals a desire to engage. It’s a way of saying: I want to know what the world looks like through your eyes; I want to hear your thoughts more than just telling you mine. Ask a little child their opinion about the best ice cream flavor and they will stand tall and speak with assurance as they tell you more than you ever needed to know about ice cream. Teenagers are much cagier, but they, too, enjoy knowing their words matter to you. If you want your child to talk to you, try asking more and telling less.
The truth is, we are older than our kids, so we know more. But they will always have more experience at being themselves. If we want them to let us in to their lives, we have to respect that we have never walked a step in their shoes.
Questions come from a place of humility.
There’s a brilliant scene in the TV series Ted Lasso* when affable American soccer coach Ted plays darts against Rupert, a villainous Brit who lost ownership of his beloved soccer team in his divorce. Confident in his own superiority, Rupert challenges the “hillbilly” Ted to a game of darts in hopes of humiliating him in front of a pub full of people.
Three throws away from losing, Ted tells the story of driving his little boy to school one day when he passes a mural with Walt Whitman’s quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.” He realizes that people have always underestimated him because they failed to be curious enough to find out who he is. In this case, Rupert thinks Ted is a loser, so he doesn’t bother to ask if Ted plays darts. Ted expertly hits two twenties and a bull’s eye to win the game.
Like Rupert, we don’t ask questions because we think we know the answers. We rush to judge, assuming we know what our child thinks or needs or wants. Other times, we believe we understand our child better than they understand themselves. That might actually be true, but that’s not the point. Asking questions is an act of humility, an admission that there is something we don’t know but would like to know. A well-timed question is actually a way of saying, “Help me understand, because I don’t, but I want to.”
Curiosity is incompatible with anxiety.
Anxious parents—and I am the worst—sometimes don’t ask because we don’t want to hear the answer. Alternatively, I have a tendency to barrage my kids with intrusive questions in a quest to calm my own fears.
But anxiety is as repellant as bad stink off a wet dog. Our kids will not feel welcome to confide in or even casually chat with a parent who is launching questions like missiles ahead of a hostile takeover. It’s not their job to calm our anxieties with their answers.
Cast your worries on the One who can handle them and let Him replace your fears with curiosity (1 Peter 5:7). This is easier said than done, especially when your kid answers every question with “fine,” or “whatever.” Sometimes that casting has to happen over and over, even several times in the course of one dinnertime with a taciturn teen. If you want to invite your teenager to talk, your worry is one obstacle that God can help you remove.
Genuine curiosity is relaxed and welcoming, offering a sort of hospitality for the soul. Gently persist in laying out good questions like a welcome mat (one at the time, please). Over time, curiosity offered in love will beckon your child to sit down and visit awhile.
*Ted Lasso is an astonishing television series. A ten-episode exploration of true humility, the show is full of grace and joy, and you might enjoy watching it with your older teenagers. It is also full of really bad language and some raunchy jokes, so please preview it thoroughly before watching it with your family. For Dr. Michael Kruger’s take, see Five Leadership Lessons I Learned From Ted Lasso.