When Adolescents Start Talking Less to Parents

Typically, readiness to communicate with parents is reduced for an adolescent

Posted Nov 03, 2014

It’s common at the onset of early adolescence (9-13) that the child who had a lot to say and used to confide everything becomes much less talkative and personally forthcoming with parents. (I’m not talking here about non-communication that can accompany substance use, depression, or social trouble.)

It is also common that parents who are used to receiving a ready and steady stream of conversation from their child find it hard adjusting to this loss of communication with their teenager. At worst, they can feel cut off (“We rarely talk”), ignorant (“We don’t know what’s going on”), anxious (“We worry about what we don’t know”), and lonely (“We miss the chats we used to have.”)

It’s not easy transitioning from the holding-on closeness of Attachment Parenting a child (“We love doing everything together,” “She tells me everything”) to the letting-go separation of Detachment Parenting an adolescent (“We are increasingly growing apart,” “She tells me almost nothing.”) Although a matter of degree, in most cases easy and open communication is harder to maintain.

Two things for parents to remember about this developmental change is that less verbal communication does NOT connote a loss of love from the teenager, and that less verbal connection does NOT mean that they can’t still find ways to stay close with their teenager.

Typically, this change in communication with parents once adolescence begins is related to three factors: differentiation, privacy, and independence.

For Differentiation from being a child the adolescent talks less to parents to act more grown up: “I am an older person now.” For Privacy for growing up the adolescent talks less to parents to keep more development of self to oneself: “I need more personal life to call my own.” For Independence and growing more in charge the adolescent talks less to parents to assert more self-control: “I decide how much to communicate about myself to you.”

Although, on all three counts, parents generally have to accept less talking from an adolescent than a child, that doesn’t mean that they should remain passively content with whatever little crumbs of communication they get. After all, detaching more from their detaching adolescent doesn’t mean they can afford to let go parental responsibility -- which lasts as long as the young person is in their active care. Part of staying responsibly connected to their teenager is being kept up to date about what is going on.

They have a legitimate need to know and, with a less talkative adolescent, they should specify the minimum amount of ongoing information they must have to continue doing their child-raising job. Think in categories: in health, emotional well-being, location and activity when away from home, Internet life, in friendships, socializing, school, and future plans, for example, describe what information they expect to be told.

Occasionally, often with a mid-adolescent (around ages 13 – 15), the young person will realize the power of becoming prime informant about them self for their parents and feel tempted to abuse that power: “I don’t have to tell you anything, and I won’t!”

Fortunately, parents have a good answer to this boast. “That’s right. You only communicate with us as much about yourself as you want to tell. That’s up to you. However, please understand that by blocking us out or keeping us on a too short supply of information, there are consequences you may not like. First, not talking to us creates a state of ignorance in us, and we don’t manage ignorance well. We start to imagine the worst and worry, which is when we jump to misunderstandings: ‘There must be something the matter, some kind of trouble in your life that you’re not telling us about.’ Then, based on that misunderstanding, we overreact to protect you from imaginary harm: ‘We must reduce your social freedom to keep you safe.’ This is when you will complain how we have become very hard to live with, and we will agree. The less we know about you, the more we will exaggerate our fears. And frightened parents are no fun to live with. They can get distrustful and restrictive. But as we said, how much you decide to talk to us is entirely up to you. However, for both our comforts’ sakes, our recommendation would be for you to keep us adequately and accurately informed.”

For some parents, having less talking time with their adolescent is additionally painful. They feel disconnected. “We’ve lost all sense of closeness with this loss of conversation!” This need not be so. There are two major ways to create a sense of closeness with their adolescent, Confiding only being one. The other is Companionship.

At an age when talking together may be harder for the teenager, doing together is another viable way. For example, I have frequently seen mothers who had a very confiding relationship with a child son now adjusting to an adolescent who shuts down that flow of easy conversation in order to act older and more “manly” (he feels too old to act like ‘mother’s little boy.’) So, rather than insist on more talking together, the mom understands what is going on and switches to relying more on ‘doing together’ activities for them to share. She may do more driving him to places, doing things that interest him, sharing entertainments they both like. They can have a good time together without having a good talk. Although, sometimes doing together can open up a chance to talk.

Finally, there is this. Parents need to understand the importance of Accessibility – being available to listen and converse whenever (no matter how inconvenient the time) the teenager feels like talking. Wanting to talk to parents during adolescence is often less intentional than opportune – the psychological readiness required is a mysterious and chancy thing that the teenager often does not consciously control. “Sometimes it feels okay to talk to my parents, and sometimes not. I don’t know why.” And that is true.

So be advised. Those parents who put an adolescent invitation to talk off until “later” will usually be disappointed. By the time “later” has arrived the emotional opening for communication has closed.

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

Next week’s entry: Why Adolescents Can't "Keep It All Together"