The Complexity of Parental Questions for Adolescents

The child can welcome parental questions that the adolescent can resent

Posted Jun 13, 2016

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

“What’s the matter with asking my teenager a simple question, I’d like to know? Why is she so unwelcoming when I do?”

The best short answer I’ve heard was given to a parent by her offended 14-year-old: “Because when you ask me a question I know you're questioning something about me!” 

It’s best to start this blog at the beginning.

THE PROBLEM OF INCOMPATIBILITY

There is a growing incompatibility between parent and teenager who is now detaching and differentiating from childhood to push for more independence and individuality, and a parent who is striving to stay adequately informed as adolescence increasingly grows them apart, as it is meant to do. Now the adult (driven by worry over worldly risks) has a need to know more about the young person at a time when she or he has a counter need to be known less (driven by desire to protect personal freedom.) 

At this juncture, parents often increase their use of questions to get desired information from an adolescent who resists and resents these queries for multiple causes. For openers: parental questions can be invasive of personal privacy and emblematic of adult authority.

To an adolescent, there are no simple parental questions because they can be subject to contradictory interpretations and can mask unstated intent. Consider just a few examples of complexities they can convey.

THE COMPLEXITY OF QUESTIONS

"Why did you do this?" Curiosity or Criticism?

"Are you feeling okay?" Concern or Accusation?

"Can you explain what happened?" Invitation or Investigation?

"If you had it to do over, would you make the same choice?" Exploration or Correction?

"Can you repeat what you told us before?" Clarity or Entrapment?

"What are your and your friends going to do?" Interest or Suspicion?

"Do you agree with our conditions?" Consent or Contracting?

For the adolescent, innocent parental questions can sometimes be guilty of double meanings. 

QUESTIONS AS CUTTING TOOLS

Like a very sharp knife, questions are verbal tools that can cut in many directions, so they must be used with sensitivity, thought, and care. What parents often find with their upset adolescent is that what they meant by an “plain” question was not how the young person understood it. This is why, when the adolescent gets upset by a question, it is usually worth taking time to give a listen to what they young person thought or felt it was really about. “When you asked I felt you were questioning how I was doing, like I wish you wouldn’t but you always do!”

For both parent and adolescent, you can sympathize when questions become too many. For the teenager, to be on the receiving end of a barrage of questions can feel threatening and interrogating. For the parent, to have many unanswered questions can create a lot of anxiety and distrust. “Stop asking me all the time!” “Then tell me what I need to know!” Excessive questions can be wearing for everyone.

EASING THE IMPACT OF QUESTIONS

There are some ways parents can ease the impact of their questions. One way is to explain why you are asking, what is your need to know, and why. “The reason I’m asking this is to make sure you’re not in some degree of danger.”

Another way is to rely less on questions when your child enters adolescence, and more on Requests. Questions abruptly confront the young person with your need to know, and require  an answer.  Requests can do the same job but with courtesy and respect. A request shows you honor the young person’s right share what they wish and appreciate their willingness to favor parents with a reply. “If you could tell me any more about what happened, this would really ease my mind.”

Of course, sometimes how parents frame their question can frustrate getting what they want to know. For example, when their teenager arrives home from school they ask, "How was your day?" "Okay," is the minimal reply. And parents find that a general question can yield a generally uninformative response. So they try again with a more focused approach. "What were some good parts and some hard parts of your day?" Now increased specificity in what they're asking may yield a more specific and satisfying answer. "Well, to the good I got an 82 on that Math test I thought I'd bombed. On the hard side I found out about a party last Saturday that I wasn't invited to."

MAKING QUESTIONS WELCOME

One way for parents to create adolescent openness to questions is to equitize the incidence of asking and answering between parent and teenager, as well as personal sharing in their relationship.

For example, I believe in a family where parents are entitled to do all the asking and the adolescent is expected to answer but not ask, and where most of what parents want to discuss is about the adolescent, but not themselves, a teenager can feel resistant to parental questions because "all they ever want to talk about or ask about is me!" 

Contrast this to a family in which parents welcome and willingly answer adolescent questions and daily share some of their personal lives as they routinely are interested in hearing about the life of their teenager. The goal would be to create interactions where questions open up communication and don't shut it down.

THE RISKS OF ASKING QUESTIONS 

Finally, remember that asking questions can be risky.  For example: “How narrow was your escape?” “Have you been experimenting with alcohol or other drugs?’ “How desperate are you?” “How do you honestly feel about what happened?” “Can you tell me the whole story?” Beware. Bluntly put, consider this teenager’s advice to parents: “Don’t ask me a question you really don’t want an truthful answer to.”

Because they can cut in so many unexpected and often unintended ways, with their more sensitive adolescent there can be fewer “simple” questions that a parent can ask.

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

Next week’s entry: Conducting Conflict with Your Adolescent