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Challenge: Open Discussion

Why is it so hard for your teen to open up?

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The teenage years. For many parents, the phrase triggers images of slamming doors and endless frustrations that are often the direct result of being unable to communicate effectively with a child. It’s no secret that getting teenagers to engage with their parents with some degree of civility can be a challenge — but that doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands until your young adult emerges from the adolescent abyss. Instead, you can take specific steps to better understand your child’s behavior and learn how to talk more effectively with your teen.

Why parents and teenagers struggle

There could be many reasons why you and your teen are having trouble communicating — and vying for power is at the top of the list. As parenting expert Megan Divine writes, “Understand that ignoring you gives your child a sense of power … [it]makes them feel as if they have a little bit of control in a situation where they might feel they have none.” Even more, when you react to such defiance with a heavy-handed approach, Devine says you only make things worse: “As with any power struggle, the more you try to make your teen behave the way you want, the more your child will resist,” she writes.

However, beyond a general indifference or the struggle for power, there may be more significant reasons for your teen’s lack of communication. They could include a fear or belief that:

  • You’ll get too overwhelmed or worried — especially if they perceive you as already stressed.
  • You’ll try to fix it — which they don’t want you to do.
  • You’ll get mad — because you won’t approve of what they will share.
  • You just won’t understand — because you and your teen live in very different worlds.

The great risk for teenagers

While teenage moodiness is to be expected, if you suspect your child’s withdrawn behavior is more serious, you shouldn’t hesitate to intervene and get help. Depression and social isolation create great risks for teenagers, because they unfortunately lead to suicide in too many cases. In fact, suicide is the second most common cause of death for those ages 15-34 and third among those ages 10-14, according to a recent blog post from the MSW@USC, the online MSW program from the University of Southern California. That’s why parents need to know what to look for in case there is a more serious issue at play.

How to talk with your teen

When you’re developing your communication strategy, remember that your teen may have many concerns about talking to you that you’re not aware of. As noted previously, they may be worried about the impact on you or your reaction to what they’re going to say — so it’s important to figure out how you’ll maintain your supportive composure regardless of what you hear.

In both normal conversation difficulties with teens, as well as identifying larger issues at hand, these communication tips for parents from the American Psychological Association (APA) can help:

  • Be available — by noticing the best time to talk; starting the conversation to show you care; enjoying some alone time together; and learning about your child’s interests.
  • Listen well — by giving your undivided attention; expressing interest without being intrusive; listening to differing points of view even if it’s difficult; letting them finish before responding; and repeating what you heard to verify your understanding.
  • Respond thoughtfully — by being gentle; expressing your opinion without putting down theirs; resisting the power struggle and need to be right; and focusing on your child’s feelings — rather than your own.

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