The [perfectly normal] Silent Teenager . . .

In my thoughts about downtime and boredom, I alluded to my belief that getting your teen to talk may involve a lot of hanging around before s/he decides to open up. That comment has garnered a surprising amount of attention.

And a couple weeks ago, when I was talking with Lorra Lynch Jones about Putting Kids in Charge of Play, she asked if the idea would work for teenagers, too. She even suggested a board game as an activity. I regret blowing off the idea, since it’s such a good one after all. (one thing I love about begin a therapist: you get to think out loud slowly–there’s not so much pressure to say the right thing the first time). Fear not: I intend to make it up to Lorra. Watch on July 30th.

It seems that many parents of teens are wondering how to get them to talk. Tall order. Following are a few tips, not guaranteed to change anything:

  • I think the most important thing to remember when you are wondering why your formerly loving, affectionate child has turned into a monosyllabic  recluse is; “this is normal.” Make this your mantra: “it’s good that my teen doesn’t want to talk. It’s normal. If s/he needed me for every little problem, that would be bad.” Try to get into the habit of “reframing” your child’s behavior as part of his or her healthy development. For example, your child looks grumpy and won’t tell you why. It probably does not mean that s/he suddenly hates you (although it may feel that way). It probably means her/his primary developmental need is to establish an identity separate from yours and the family’s. Maybe s/he wants or needs to solve whatever problem it is by him- or herself.
  • Think about how talking to you might feel from his or her perspective. Do you give unsolicited advice? Do you rush to fix? Do you minimize his or her feelings? If you went to a trusted friend with a painful social problem and she said “Oh I used to feel that way until I got more mature,” how inclined would you be to seek her support next time? When your teen opens up to you, Wendy Mogel recommends the following acronym: WAIT: Why Am I Talking? To illustrate, she suggests making use of two responses most of the time: “‘wow,‘ or with slightly more approbation,  ‘whoa.'”
  • Find ways to connect other than talking. A wise dad I know loved to take his daughter to play tennis because she was more likely to talk on the court than anywhere else. As your kids get older, establish some activity that will be your “thing” with that child, a special time together that nobody else shares and s/he knows you value. It could be a sport, a special restaurant, taking walks, or even driving to lessons, rehearsals, or games.
  • Remember your village.  I have seen children whose parents wondered if they had been struck mute have hour-long chats with youth pastors and coaches. It is hard to accept for some of us, but our kids may have found other adults to talk to about their struggles. I think this is why it is so important to connect with a community of people you trust and who share your values. That way, if your teen picks a friend’s mom to talk to, you know that mom and her values will complement your own. I’ll say it again: this can be hard to accept. I’d encourage you to be kind to yourself as you decide what it means that your child talks with the coach and not you. It’s not because you aren’t understanding or supportive or open enough. It’s probably because you are the parent.

Teens are funny creatures. She feels like a completely different person every time she changes clothes. His emotions are way stronger than they have ever been in his life; and have become that strong before he has the capacity to think through emotions the way he will later. Of course they are hard to live with. Loving them through adolescence is not for wimps. Keep at it.