Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and the problem with questions.

Being questioned and asking questions can be difficult for adolescents.

Adolescence creates a lot of questions.

For the young person:
"What will my friends think of me?"
"What is going on with my body?"
"What should I tell my parents?"
"How will my life turn out?"
"Will I ever learn?"
And on and on.

For the parents:
"What happened to the child my adolescent used to be?"
"How much of the truth should I expect to be told?"
"What will my teenager's next misadventure be?"
"Why is my adolescent acting this way?"
"How am I supposed to respond?"
And on and on.

By impelling more independence, adolescence changes the child, the parent in response, and the relationship between them. Like any major change, by moving people from the same to a different circumstance, adolescence creates an enormous information need -- the need to know what this new and unfamiliar period of growth will be like for them individually and together.

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Plagued by so much ignorance on both sides of the relationship, it's no wonder parent and adolescent both seek to reduce it by asking questions to get answers that inform their understanding and reduce their anxiety. The questions are pretty basic: what's happening, why is it happening, what's going to happen, and what should be done about it?

The problem is, asking questions is not as simple as it seems. With a son or daughter who is now acting more independently, parents ask more questions about what is going on to satisfy their increased need to know. At the same time, the adolescent has an increased need not to be known. The young person wants more privacy to protect emerging independence. Hence the working compromise: parents will have to get by on less information than they ideally would like to know, and the adolescent will have to disclose more information than he or she would ideally like to tell.

Parents often don't understand that their adolescent is resistant to questions for two good causes. Adult questions are not only invasive of privacy; they are emblematic of authority. They expose the inequity between adolescent and adult. The adolescent is expected to be answerable to the adult authority, not the other way around. Being repeatedly questioned by an adult can feel threatening and agreeing to answer can feel demeaning.

This natural antipathy to adult questions can be partly reduced if parents will keep their questions to a minimum (where immediate information is required), and instead of asking questions to get their information needs met, make requests instead. If a question can convey authority by sounding like an order, a request can convey respect by seeming like a courtesy.

So the parent says, "It would really ease my mind if you could tell me more about what happened." Or, "I would really value it if you could help me better understand." Or, "I know so little about what is going on, it would be great if you could bring me up to speed." The power of a request for information is that it respects the adolescent's right to tell. Thus, after being given information, parents express appreciation for being told.

Then there is the natural reluctance of many adolescents to ask questions. So in class, the middle school student who doesn't understand what the teacher is explaining won't ask a question to satisfy his need to know. Why won't he ask? A question is a statement of ignorance. In front of his peers, it shows what he doesn't know what he supposes everybody else must know (because they're not asking any questions), and he doesn't want to be ridiculed and put down for acting stupid.

That's why teachers (and parents) need to make clear that questions are an expression of intelligence - of the desire to learn. The asker knows enough to know what she doesn't know and is smart enough to ask a question to get the answer, making her smarter than before. As one veteran teacher presented this to her class, "when you ask a question in my classroom that means you are acting independent enough to take charge of your own education, getting the information you need by asking for it."

Unhappily, this fear of appearing ignorant is what causes many young people to keep their questions to themselves. So, rather than rely on parents as good informants about sex, and drugs, and all manner of safety issues, for example, an adolescent at home acts like she knows it all, when in fact the most she knows is unreliable hearsay from peers. "You can't get drunk on beer." "You can't get addicted to pot." "You can't get pregnant the first ten days after your period."

Parents need to offer themselves as a resource. "We don't know everything, but we have lived a long time and we may have some knowledge and experience that can be helpful to you as you grow your way along. So please ask us anything you need to know."

It's one of the hardest things parents need to do during their child's adolescence - making the relationship safe for questions. First, parents must refrain from accusatory questions: "Why did you do that?" "How could you have let that happen?" "Who do you think you are!" If parents want to create a relationship that is safe for questions, they need to ask questions in a safe manner. "Can you explain to me what happened so we can figure out what to do?"

Second, parents can also ask the adolescent self-examination questions about them selves. "Have we done something you find hurtful or wrong?" "Is there something we need to do or say differently that can help us better get along?" "Is there something you would like to ask of us?" Casting themselves as responder and the adolescent as questioner, they can empower their son or daughter.

And third, parents can encourage a mutual information exchange with their adolescents such that not only are adolescents expected to share about themselves, but parents are expected to share about themselves too. The right to question goes two ways, not just one.

From what I have seen in counseling, what tends to make adolescents receptive to questions from parents are parents who are open to questions from their adolescents. Which raises the very tough questions an adolescent can ask.

"When you were a teenager,

--did you ever do anything illegal?

--did you ever use alcohol or drugs?

--did you ever have sex?"

How is a parent supposed to answer if, the truth be known, they did do some of these things? Wouldn't making this admission be the same as giving permission? Suppose the adolescent says, "Well if you did, why shouldn't I?" It's a tough call.

If you choose to answer, however, my advice is truth with contracting. "I will agree to answer your questions about this part of my growing up if you will promise to honestly answer my questions about this subject in your life." Thus a two-way communication about a very important topic can be established.

Parents can be very credible informants, and when they share their risk taking experience they can warn their teenager away from taking those risks themselves. "It was at a high school party. I got drunk, lost control of my decision-making, had sex with my date, and paid a really heavy price. I ended up feeling used, I felt badly about myself, I put myself in danger, and I earned a reputation that was hard to live down. So from my experience, I would advise you not to drink, particularly not to get drunk, at a party or on a date. Sober is socially safest, that's what I learned the sad way, and what I believe." Thus a cautionary tale is told.

When it comes to answering hard questions from your adolescent, I believe the question parents need to ask themselves is this. "Do I have significant experience from my own adolescence that I could share with my teenager that might spare him or her from running the same risks, making the same mistakes, and getting into the same trouble?" If so, truth with contracting may be the way to go. 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescent break ups.

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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