Why teenagers don’t talk to their parents…
I once read that the teenage years can be likened to the toddler years. Both stages of life are a time of significant developmental change. Toddlers and teens alike experience significant body and mind development that can have them behaving in ways you have never seen. Just as they are figuring out who they are, we, as parents, struggle to understand the child we once thought we knew inside out.
But the thing is, that is what they need from us most of all; to understand. The way we interact with our young children, the words we use, the intonation in our voice and even our body language can have a huge impact on whether they will feel comfortable talking to us about the big issues they will inevitably face as teens. If we are not empathetic and understanding to the ‘little things’ they face in their early years (which are actually big things to them) then the chances are they will have a hard time opening up about the big things when they grow.
Imagine if your son came home from school after spending the day coping with peers calling him names and throwing his back pack on the toilet block roof. Imagine then if he were to say nothing to you about it but instead went straight to his room. Would you want to have the opportunity to talk to him about it? How about if your daughter was struggling with her peers pressuring her to take drugs, would you want to know? If your daughter fell pregnant and was frightened about the huge choices she would soon be making, would you want her to be able to come to you for help? If she chose to abort the child, I know you’d want to know about that!
Responding to these questions is confronting and uncomfortable.
We would all like to pray and hope that our children will never find themselves in these situations but we would be naive to think that our children are completely immune from the perils of adolescence.
I’ve been a secondary school teacher for more than a decade now. I have taught in schools on both sides of the world and at both ends of the economic spectrum. In my time as a health and physical education teacher I have been privileged to teach, mentor and guide students through their teen years in many differing ways and in a number of roles.
Of course, teaching these students was my primary role and I really enjoy that aspect of my job, but what if I told you that each of the students in the scenarios above chose not to talk to their parents? What if I told you that in each of the cases, the only person they felt they could talk to was me – their teacher?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about the fact that I became a confidante for these students during some pretty harrowing years, in fact I feel touched and grateful that they were able to find the confidence to open up at all. But, now that I am a parent and have had a chance to reflect upon these scenarios with a different perspective, I realise that the trials of the teenage years are life-shaping to many. I know that if these were my children in the future, I would want them to feel they could come to me when times got tough.
I have since lost count of the number of students that, burdened with what must have felt like the weight of the world, broke down during a conversation after class and confided in me. From friendship issues to relationship concerns, pregnancy scares and drug experiences, these students spoke of their fears, their regrets and their inability to find their way past it.
There were of course times where I was legally obliged to report their stories to my superiors and from there the children had access to the professional support they needed. But many times these children simply needed a shoulder cry on; someone to hear them and to understand.
So, why don’t teenagers talk to their parents?
In every case, I queried, “Is there someone you can talk to about this at home?” and almost always the answer was a resounding, “No!” With rationales like, “They just wouldn’t understand” or “They would be so disappointed in me!” coming flooding out with the tears that fell uncontrollably, it often seemed that this realisation itself was to them sometimes more painful than the life event they were dealing with.
So where did their relationship break down? When did it get to the point that these children no longer felt comfortable talking to their parents about their deepest fears, their hurts and their pain? When did their problems get so big that they felt the only person they could trust to talk to about them was their school teacher?
Well, I can tell you honestly that in most cases it was not because these parents were uncaring, unloving or bad parents. In most cases it was quite the opposite. These were in fact, strong, capable, got-it-together parents who would do anything for their children and raised them to have good morals and high values. They were adoring and hard-working and would consider themselves great role-models for their children.
I can also say categorically that these children were not ‘broken’ or disconnected children. Many of them were high achievers, diligent, popular and outwardly happy. They cared about their life and had goals and aspirations. They also had a lot of love for their parents.
The problem it seemed, stemmed from their childhood, where somewhere along the way they had come to the conclusion that their parent’s love and approval was conditional of good behaviour and achievement.
You see, in a well-intended, concerted effort to ensure their children are raised to be upstanding members of society, many parents use punitive, disconnecting discipline techniques. Methods such as time-outs, removal of privileges, shaming and spanking are among the most common of these methods. They, coupled with achievement-based rewards and praise, unwittingly send the message that with achievement comes love and with misbehaviour comes reprehension. This can effectively close the doors for a trusting, honest and communicative relationship with their children into the future.
My time spent with thousands of teenagers over the past decade has had a significant impact on the parenting pathway I have taken. My children are still some way off hitting their teen years, but I am confident that the way I parent them now will have a significant bearing on how comfortable they will feel communicating to me during those vulnerable teenage years.
As my children grow I want them to know that no matter what happens; no matter what trouble they find themselves in, they can always come to me. I want them to know that I will support them, guide them and love them no matter what.
I know that if you have read this far, this is probably something you would want for your children also.
So, what do we need to do to foster an open relationship with our children?
To create that open, trusting relationship we need to be mindful of the way we parent them now. It is now that we are laying the foundations for our relationship in the years to come.
We need to admire and respect them for who they are – warts and all! With unconditional love, support and understanding, no matter how testing the behaviour, we must send our children the clear message that not only will we always accept them for who they are, we will always support and help them with kindness and understanding when they are having a hard time. They need to know that they can always be confident and proud of who they are no matter the short-comings they may be attributed and we can relay this to them in our interactions with them.
How can we demonstrate acceptance and understanding on a daily basis?
1. Choose Discipline Over Punishment
It is vital to grow connection with our children by using discipline rather than punishment. Teaching through guidance rather than by fear encourages children to remain open about their mistakes rather than hiding them away.
Janet Lansbury, a parenting teacher and RIE (respectful parenting) associate taught me that when our children are having a hard time and displaying testing toddler behaviours, this is our opportunity to show them we are open for them to communicate to us their pain. We can show them understanding by reaching out to them during these times and acknowledging their frustrations. We can say things like, “It seems you are having a hard time playing with your sister, I will sit here with you so I help you.” And then do it. Keep them both safe and show compassion and understanding to both siblings as they both have their own demons to deal with.
If we punish them by taking away their favourite toy or sending them to their room, or showing them the same aggression they might be displaying towards their sibling, not only do we send them the message that we don’t want to try to understand them but we also close the door on an opportunity to communicate and connect.
2. Acknowledge Physical and Emotional Hurt
When they fall and bump their knee and begin to whine or cry, we can let them know we empathise with their pain. It may just be a small scrape but we mustn’t try to stop their tears by telling them they are alright if they are clearly upset. By finding something to distract them with or dismissing their pain rather than acknowledging their discomfort and offering them some TLC, we are telling them, we don’t want to hear about their hurts. We only want them to be happy.
Similarly, when a child is feeling emotional about a particular circumstance that may seem trivial to us as adults, acknowledge and validate their feelings. It IS a big deal to them so it is important we show them that we understand and empathise. Parenting is easy when our children are happy, it is when they are sad, angry or frustrated that we can truly let them know of our unconditional love, understanding and acceptance.
So, how do we avoid creating an approval-based relationship?
Whilst keeping lines of communication wide open from birth is vital in fostering a trusting relationship with children, a relationship based upon the need for approval can also cause a teen to withdraw and withhold from us for fear of retribution.
As children grow and develop it can be tempting to push them beyond their capabilities in an effort to help them achieve milestones and learn new skills. When a child begins to pull themselves up on couches, for example, it might prompt us to take their hand and show them they can walk across the room. This achievement is celebrated by enthusiastic parents who might clap their hands and coo “Good boy!” to their child.
The message this sends the child is that just pulling themselves up on the couch is not good enough. It plants a seed of self-doubt as they question the worthiness of their actual capabilities and get drawn towards the prospect of more attention and praise if they could just take those extra few steps.
Accepting that a child’s skills, abilities, behaviours, emotions etc on any given day are perfect for that child at that time takes a significant change in ideals and perceptions but what it does do is create an environment for our children to become contentedly and innately driven to learn, achieve, grow and develop along a natural pathway. A child who feels their worth is measured by results, achievements and good behaviour will soon need to see, hear and feel parental approval to gain confidence and continue moving forward.
I have seen first-hand the impact on teenagers who have had these subtle messages unwittingly reinforced to them by their well-meaning parents over the course of their childhood. These children become fearful of disappointing their parents and worried that confiding in them will be met with judgement and disapproval.
During the adolescent years, teen’s bodies are undergoing huge changes fuelled by hormones. At the same time they experience a developmental need to assert independence and additionally, possess underdeveloped brain matter which encourages them towards more risk-taking activities. In short, a significant number of teenagers will experiment, test and become more emotional during adolescence, leaving them vulnerable to the sorts of situations I mentioned earlier in the article.
Therefore, (just as in their toddlerhood) teens need love and understanding more than ever, perhaps indicating why they will seek out a trusted source such as their teacher to unload their burdens if they don’t feel confident doing so at home.
Whilst having our children open up to an alternative confidante would not be the end of the world, wouldn’t we rather they felt they could come to us should they be concerned, worried or looking for guidance. I know I would want to be there to help my daughters should they need it.
I feel strongly that over the next decade, as our children navigate through their childhood, finding their feet and developing a stronger understanding of who they are, what they stand for, their strengths and their limitations, our role as their parents must be to walk alongside them, showing them unconditional love and understanding. This, I believe, will give them the confidence they need to be able to confide in us if or when their lives get tough.
When they hurt, we will empathise. When they scream, we will listen. When they make mistakes, we will support them. When they reject us, we will understand and love them. When they fall down, we will let them know they are still loved as they pick themselves back up again and move on. This must be our pledge to our children.
I still occasionally see the student of mine who aborted her child. She was legally able to make this decision for herself and went through with it with no family support. She went on to have a beautiful family a little later with her partner and is a terrific mother. She says her Mum and Dad still have no idea about her first pregnancy and she doubts she will ever tell them.
My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s work. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury
More recommended reading:
Taking the Brunt of a Child’s Anger and Still Finding Connection ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Creating Bonds: Accepting a Child’s Emotions ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Talking to Toddlers: 4 Secrets That Bring you Closer ~ Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury-Elevating Childcare)
Foolproof Strategies for Getting Kids to Talk ~ Laura Markham (Aha Parenting)
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk ~ Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Affiliate Link)
Photo Credit: Copyright: Ed Yourdon (Flickr) (Image adjusted – lighting and text added)