Three Ways to Reconnect with Your Silent Teenager

One of the most common questions in my workshops is from parents of teenagers. “How can I strengthen my relationship with a child you doesn’t want to talk to me? Where do I even start?” This came up again during a recent workshop I did on How to Be Your Child’s Favorite Conversation Partner, so I thought I’d write a post on this important question.

I will suggest three ways for you to reconnect with your silent teenager – but first, here’s a glimpse into teenage psychology that may help you understand your child’s perspective.

One of the defining aspects of being a child is lacking power. When we are kids, almost everybody has power over us – most other people have more authority than us, they are taller and can reach places we can’t, they are stronger and can threaten us or move heavier things than we can, they are more experienced and skilled… the list goes on and on. When kids feel supported and cared for, this isn’t necessarily a problem. It can be nice to have a group of competent skilled kind-hearted all-knowing well-meaning giants taking care of us. But still, every child wants to be Big. Every child wants to have more power, and become less dependent on others. And this desire peaks during the teenage years, giving rise to the urge to develop a separate identity, to be respected, to be seen as competent and worthy of respect.

You will clash with your teenager if you treat your teenager as a child that can be bossed around. Doing this practically guarantees that your teenager will either confront you or withdraw from you (or both, alternatingly). Trying to force your teenager to share meaningfully with you or spend quality time with you is not likely to go over well, since it is not respecting your child’s growing sense of, and need for, independence. Shared decision-making is the name of the game.

So what can we do, when we want to connect with our child but can’t force our child to connect with us?

We can invite our child to connect. Here are three ways to initiate meaningful contact with your teenager.

  1. Share An Observation. When you share an observation about your child, you are demonstrating your interest, your attention, your care, and your lack of judgment. Not bad for a short statement! Your observation may be about something positive (“Natasha, I noticed you’ve been practicing your soccer passes a lot – it’s looking really good!”) or about something concerning (“Derryl, over the past week I see you coming straight home from school and hanging out in your room a lot, which seems different than how you usually hang out with friends after school”). It can end with a question (“…is everything okay?”) or with a prompt to respond (“…and I was just wondering what caused the change”), but it doesn’t have to. Simply sharing an observation is a powerful way of demonstrating your involvement and care. If you are touching on something that is important for your child, it’s very likely your child will have more to say about it. Even if not, you just made a nice relational deposit that will translate into greater willingness to share with you later on.
  2. Schedule a Time to Connect. Approach your child like you would approach a friend that you haven’t seen in a while. Say something clear like “You know, I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve talked, and I want to hear about what’s going on with you. When would be a good time to hang out?” It’s okay to actually schedule a time (such as “during dinner” or “on the way to Jake’s”). This is what you would do with an adult friend, after all, and your teenager wants to be treated like an adult.
  3. Model Connecting. A lot of how our kids behave toward us is a reflection of how they see us behave. Does your teenager see you share details about your life, either with your teenager or with others? If not, why would your teenager think that sharing is part of everyday behavior? Get in the habit of sharing some (age-appropriate) information about yourself, what you did during the day, things you are thinking about, decisions you need to make, etc. Ask for your child’s thoughts and advice and think through things together. This has the added advantage of demonstrating your respect for your child’s views and opinions (which you show by asking for your child’s opinion), which in itself is a nice relational deposit.

Timing is important. Try approaching your child when your child is available and not engrossed in a fun/important/urgent activity.

You can also do this in writing. A little hand-written note or a text message can be a nice, unobtrusive way to invite your child to connect.

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