Parental Adjustment to Early Adolescent Communication

Parental communication with an adolescent is more complex than with a child.

Posted Mar 24, 2014

Along with common developmental changes of Early Adolescence (around ages 9 – 13) like more personal disorganization, increased negativity, passive and active resistance, and testing limits to see what can be gotten away with, can come some changes in spoken language too. These can require a certain amount of adjustment for a parent when they significantly depart from how the child used to communicate to them before.

Six common changes that come to mind are more Inattention, desire for Privacy, Temptation to Lie, along with what I call ‘Tough Talking,’ ‘Talking in Code,’ and ‘Aversion Conversions.’ Take them one at a time.


More complexity within one’s growing self (puberty, for example) and within one’s enlarging world (secondary school, for example) combine to create a more distracting life experience where focusing on any one thing very long is much harder to do. One skill that momentarily often falls casualty to this this system overload is listening. What parents find is that it’s harder to get the young person’s full and undivided attention, while memory of what they said is harder for the young person to retain. Parents can get frustrated on both counts. Usually, the early adolescent is not being deliberately disrespectful. Rather, paying close and sustained attention to any one thing is simply more difficult now because all available information processing circuits are already so busy, often in overload. It’s just harder for parents to get through. What parents need to do at this juncture is more checking on whether and how their verbal communication was received. “Could you please tell me what you just heard me say so I know you received my message.”


While the child wanted to be well known by parents for closeness sake, the adolescent wants to be less known by parents for independence sake. Along with some diminishing tolerance for physical affection from and with parents, there is also the beginning of more social distance as the young person starts creating a more separate personal world and competing family and peers. Now the parental task is a delicate one – respecting this increased need for privacy by not prying or invading, while letting the young person understand that parents don’t keep well in the dark. Ignorance causes them to worry and react out of fear which generally doesn’t work well for anyone as they become more anxious and controlling. So they can explain: “We need to know enough about what is going on in your life to feel assured that you are okay, and to that end these are the kinds of information that we want you to regularly report and respond to when we ask.”


There are two major awakenings to personal power that occur in early adolescence -- to their power to Consent and to their power to Inform.

The “consent” awakening is to understanding how parents can’t make them do anything or stop them from doing anything without the young person’s cooperation. Now the young person no longer operates under the childish illusion that parents were in command. Choice to comply is up to the adolescent.

The “inform” awakening is to understanding how she or he is now the major informant upon whom parents must rely to find out the truth about what the young person did or did not do, is doing, or is intending to do. That’s a lot of power to possess and it can be hard to resist the temptation to take advantage of that power for freedom’s sake. Lying by omission and commission is how this power is abused – by leaving some truth out and by fabricating the truth. Testing the water, minor lies are usually told at first. “I’m late getting home because the bus was late.” When parents innocently believe this deception, the adolescent can be inclined to lie some more. With the likelihood of more lying at this freedom loving age, parents need suspect stories told that might provide the young person with illicit room to grow if believed. There are no small lies. They must be able to rely on what they are told. Without truth there can be no trust, without honesty there can be no intimacy, without sincerity there can be no security. So when in doubt, parents can request further persuasion: “Give me more information and a way to check to help me trust the truth of what you say.”


Come early adolescence and the separation from childhood and family, more reliance on peers becomes the order of the day, but this company can be pretty rough as young people play push and shove to jockey for position. For example, this is the age when Social Cruelty thrives – teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up to assert social dominance and ensure social belonging. In the process, more aggressive language (sex words, swearwords and slang words) can come into play that can be seriously offensive to parents when it is used at home. Of course, parents can’t police the names peers routinely call each other—the harsh phrases that are routinely used—but they can set a standard for family communication that they consider respectful. So they might explain something like this. “We understand this is how you and your friends talk to each other, and although it’s not language we like, that is up to you. However, it is up to us how we communicate with each other at home, and you need to know that kind of tough talking around here is not okay.”


Come their child’s adolescence, parents sometimes need to reevaluate the young person’s words to concentrate on what may really be meant, though not directly said. They have to know the code to understand what is really being said. There are so many examples, here are a few.

“I forgot” can mean “I chose not to remember.”

“You don’t trust me” can mean “You don’t believe my story.”

“Don’t worry” can mean “Your fears are interfering with my freedom.”

“In a minute” can mean “For as long as I can delay and you can wait.”

“I don’t know” can mean “I don’t want to tell what I know.”

“I hate you” can mean “I am at the extremity of my anger at you.”

“Can I help?” can mean “Let me soften you up for my request.”

“I don’t care” can mean “I care too much to admit how much I care.”

“You wouldn’t understand” can mean “I don’t want you to understand.”

“I know how” can mean “Don’t expose my ignorance with your instruction.”

“Stop lecturing me” can mean “Don’t keep telling me truth I don’t want to hear.”

“I’ll tell you whatever you want to know” can mean “I won’t tell you any more than you think to ask for.”

“You’re not listening” can mean “You’re not agreeing with what I said.”

“You don’t love me” can mean “You won’t let me do what I want.”

In response to coded statements parents can ask, “Is this what you mean or are you really wanting to tell me something else?”


Parents are often caught by complete surprise. “But they said they couldn’t stand each other, and now they’re romantically attached!” “But he swore he’d never try it, and now he does it all the time!” “But she said how she hated that look, and now she won’t dress any other way!”

What’s going on? The answer is, Aversion Conversions. When early adolescents take an extreme stand against the opposite position, this can be a good predictor of change to come. The stronger the temptation, the more firmness is required to resist what is secretly desired. Consider relationships.

Antagonism can mask attraction: “I don’t see how anyone would want to join that group.” Criticism can mask admiration: “He acts like a jerk.” Apathy can mask infatuation: “I don’t care for her type at all.”

It’s perverse. What young adolescents often mean when they resort to an extreme position of opposition or distaste is that they’re actually inclined to the reverse. Strong early statements of aversion can defend against underlying feelings of attraction. What is very scary and strongly forbidden for the 12-year-old, for example, can become very exciting and tempting three years hence. Therefore, pay attention to these extreme early statements of dislike when they occur because they can often betray signs of later interest and perhaps choices to come. In fact, parents may want to ask: “Can you tell me more about how you really don’t like this kind of thing and why?” The reply: “I think using drugs to get some feeling of freedom to act crazy is really dumb!” The objection can reveal the incentive.

So get ready. Although communication between parent and child is never simple; between parent and early adolescent it generally becomes even more complex.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Parents as Valuable Informants