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Why Won’t Our Teens Open Up and Really Talk With Us?

How we respond when talking with our teens can make a world of difference.

Key points

  • When children feel safe sharing their thoughts, parents have more of an ability to help them with their choices.
  • Being judgmental and critical when teens are sharing their concerns potentially shuts down the lines of communication with them.
  • Children are often looking for help with their choices. When we can hear them without judgment, they are more likely to continue sharing with us.

One of the great privileges we have as parents is when our adolescents confide in us. When they’re young, it’s easy. They look up to us and want our approval. As they get older, they may still want to come to us for advice; however, the way we react to their queries may impact their comfort in doing so. How we react to their questions can clearly impact their decisions to reach out to us.

For example, what do we do when our kids talk with us about something that we’re not comfortable discussing? What happens when they have questions about sexuality? What if they question our political beliefs and are on the other side of the political spectrum? What if they want to leave school to travel around the world? What if they’re questioning their gender? How do we handle these questions, worldviews, and concerns in a way that gives them the benefit of our experience without shutting them down?

What if the things they’re pondering go against our religious beliefs? What if they’re considering choices that we feel can harm their futures? How do we respond?

The value of our thoughts

The first thing to realize is that whatever choice they’re going to make, it’s going to be a more informed choice if they have our input. That means we have to keep the lines of communication open. We may think that our teen is making a huge error in judgment, or they’re not seeing the whole picture. While that may all be true, if we shut down the conversation or become authoritarian, we’re going to lose the ability to help them think through their choices. When we can hear them and logically talk about what’s on their mind, even if we don’t agree with their thoughts, we can still discuss it. It is when we get emotionally caught by the discussion and pass our own judgments, possibly shaming them in the process, that we start to destroy our ability to have access to their listening.

The key is to actually hear them. They’re searching. They’re not sure what they want. They want to discuss it. That means the more we stay stable and steady in the discussion, the more ability we have to share with them our thoughts on the subject. When we get angry or try to override their thoughts with our own, we may be giving them the message that we think their views don’t matter, and this can stop them from sharing with us in the future.

We can disagree and still show respect

Even if we disagree with what our teens want to do, as long as the lines of communication are open, we can have a conversation that has some impact on their decisions. On the other hand, if we react with fear or anger, they may just get angry and discount what we’re saying. When our own issues override our ability to hear our children and be able to talk with them from their point of view, we then run the risk of making our teens feel it’s unsafe to communicate with us. When that happens, we lose the ability to share our thoughts with them, and they may lose the ability to trust us.

Kids want to be close to their parents. They want to be able to confide in them. Teenagers recognize their parents have had life experiences that can be helpful to them. That’s why it’s important we create an environment where the child feels they can talk freely to us and we are up to the task of listening. Whatever they want to bring up is OK if they feel they’re safe in the conversation. That doesn’t mean we have to agree; it doesn’t mean we have to give them what they want; it just means they know we’ll listen, and it’ll be safe to talk with us. They won’t be shamed, they won’t be judged, and they will not get an emotionally out-of-control response from a reactive parent.

One of the problems we have as parents is that we get scared for our kids. When our teens tell us something we think doesn’t make sense for them to do, our emotions get activated, and we want to protect them. Sometimes that means we react in a way that appears judgmental and critical. At that point, we have let our own fears stop us from being open to what our child has to say. We now have an agenda for the conversation. Our child is coming to us for help figuring out a problem. We can’t let our own emotional reactiveness stop us from being able to hear them.

This is not easy. Sometimes we have strong beliefs that our children are questioning. They might be religious differences, political differences, or sexual issues, and before we know it, we can get emotionally reactive and scared of what they’re discussing. However, if we become judgmental, we may shut them down and, as a result, cause them to go elsewhere to people who may not have their best interests at heart. If we start to become emotionally reactive, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from the conversation so we can let our emotions calm down before continuing. Then when we’re ready to continue the discussion, we can hopefully be more open to hearing our child’s point of view.

Listening is the key

Whatever issues teens are facing, if we can’t hear them, we can’t help them. Whether it’s drugs, crime, or just falling in with the wrong people, we can only be of help to them if they feel safe talking to us. In these polarized times, it often seems that people who disagree tend to be vilified rather than accepted as just having a different point of view. If we can open ourselves up to actually listening to our teens’ perspectives, we might have an easier time hearing them. Then, even if we don’t agree, we can still find a way to express ourselves and give them the best counsel we’re able. Remember, if they feel they can’t talk to us, we’re just causing them to look elsewhere, and then we have no influence on their choices.

The bottom line is that our children are still contemplating their choices. They are figuring out how they feel, and when they come to us for our thoughts, it’s a real privilege to be in a position where they want our advice. That’s why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and place ourselves in a position where they are willing to share their thoughts with us to help them with their choices.

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