What happened to that talkative ten-year-old now that she is fourteen? Why doesn’t my sixteen-year-old share his part-time job problems with me? These are common questions for parents, especially parents of teens.
The answer lies in ownership and control. In reality children, even teenagers, do not control very much in their lives although as parents we feel controlled by them sometimes. The school they attend, the neighborhood they live in, and even what time they come in is determined by someone else. However, they can control whether they express their thoughts. It is for this reason that teenagers, in most cases, are reluctant to share thoughts and feelings with adults and particularly with their parents. In other words, the teenager wants to own and control some part of his or her life as a way of feeling more independent. In fact, the more dependent and inadequate the child feels, the more reluctance there is to share thoughts and feelings with their parents during the adolescent years.
The parents’ role in relation to their teenager does not require or expect that the parent communicate with the child. The only parental obligation is to be available to the child if he or she chooses to relate thoughts and feelings. All communication requires two people who genuinely want to communicate with each other and if one person chooses not to, there is no conversation. Very often parents make the mistake of trying to “communicate” with their teenagers. As they do this, no matter how subtle their effort, it only serves to turn the teenagers off and make them feel that their ideas and feelings are even more prized possessions to hang on to and not share. Asking a pouting twelve year-old four times, “What’s wrong?” only insures that they will not reveal their feelings. They may even lie so as to appease the parent while at the same time owning and controlling their true thoughts and feelings.
What is a parent to do? First, always remember that you do not have to communicate with your child but are only expected to be available to them should they choose to talk with you about their problems and issues. Secondly, do not complain to your teenager about the lack of communication or tell them how they should talk to you more. This only serves to make their decision to not share ideas and feelings that much more “delicious” to them. Third, avoid pursuing conversations, even when you know that something is bothering the adolescent. The most any parent should say under such circumstances is, “Is there something bothering you?” The child will almost always say, “No.” By simply being available, the parent has now fulfilled the communication obligation. From then on it is very important that the parent fully respect the child’s decision to not share feelings.
Once teenagers realize that they are not expected or required to share ideas and feelings and once they fully understand that they truly do own and control the expression of their thoughts, they will gradually begin to communicate more with their parents. Will your child ever communicate with you as much as you would like? Of course they won’t. However, by avoiding pursuit of conversations with your child, even when they appear quite troubled, you will slowly begin to see an increasing amount of communication between you and your youngster. Naturally, once this flow of conversation increases it is very important to not immediately put down their ideas or “straighten out their thinking” as us fathers like to try to do. You can always bring up the issue a few days later, telling them you have given the topic some thought and then introduce what might be negative or critical comments.