On Psychology

Jewish World Review May 23, 2001 / 1 Sivan, 5761

Breaching Wall of Teen Silence is worth challenge

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: My oldest child just turned 13. Until recently, we have had a very close relationship. Lately, however, she is much less talkative than when she was younger. Her grades are good, and she is reasonably popular, but I miss the hours we used to spend just talking with each other. What can I do to get my teenager to be more communicative with me?

A: One of the most remarkable transformations undertaken by the human species happens when our children enter adolescence --- they suddenly turn into clams.

Not all the time, of course. The very same teenager who spends hours talking on the phone with friends often seems incapable of any verbalization with a parent beyond the occasional (and often begrudging) grunt. Why?

The reason so many teenagers go mute around their parents is that seeking advice and counsel from them is incompatible with discovering just how much they can do for themselves. Two-year-olds assert their independence with their cries of "Let me do it!" Teenagers do it through silence.

That's why the same child who used to ask incessant questions, such as, "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why is your bedroom door locked?" now frequently goes mute whenever asked a question as complicated as "How was your day?"

This doesn't mean you will never again have a good conversation with your teenager. Studies show most teens and their parents get along pretty well, including sharing new experiences, talking over plans and problems, and enjoying one another's company. Conversations with teenagers, however, usually happen on their timetable, not your's. Teenagers like to talk to us when they want to, not necessarily when we want them to.

The fact that teenagers do not respond to every parental overture with hours of discussion does not mean you should stop making overtures. To the contrary, teens need to know that despite any unwillingness on their part to talk to us, we are always willing to listen to them. The worst thing parents can do is to respond to a teenager's silence with silence of their own.

So, how do you encourage communication with a clam, er, teenager? Here are some simple suggestions.

Start conversations, but don't end them. Because conversation with teenagers can be spotty and unpredictable, once a conversation starts, try not to be the one to stop it. Unless you have an appointment that simply cannot wait (watching the latest episode of Survivor doesn't count), make it a point to stick with the conversation until your teen ends it. You may be surprised at how long some of these conversations last if you are willing to put down the newspaper, turn off the TV and let the answering machine respond to the ringing telephone.

Make sharing meals a regular habit. If I had a magic wand that could change one thing about modern family life, it would be to make every family eat dinner together every night. Research shows that families that regularly eat dinner together are happier, healthier and more stable than those that do not. That's because a lot of conversation occurs during mealtimes - especially if you keep the television and radio turned off.

Once dinner starts, never leave the table before your children do. By making it a point to be the last - not the first - person to leave the table, you encourage longer conversations. Watching the latest episode of your favorite TV show can wait; spending precious time with your family cannot.

Communicate that you love your teenager, even when it's tough to do so. It is especially important during the teenage years for parents to go out of their way to let their children know how precious they are and how deeply they care about and love them. Teens need to know that in a pinch, they can count on their parents to be on their side. If you get this message across, you can rest easier, knowing that if your kids do get into trouble, they will turn to you for help.

Know the warning signs. While it is true that many teens turn into clams during the adolescent years, if non-communicativeness is combined with loss of appetite, a sudden and marked drop in grades, or difficulty taking care of daily activities, it could be a sign of depression, drug use or other emotional problems. In such cases, you should seek assistance from a qualified mental health expert.

Fortunately, most of the time, the moodiness and non-communicativeness of teenagers just comes with the territory. If you were expecting to spend hours each evening in deep conversation with your teenager, sharing your feelings with each other and ending each session with a hug and a good cry, well, good luck.

Just keep in mind that when teenagers grunt at us, what they are really saying is, "I can do it myself." Or at the least, they want to try.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of, among others, New Teen Book and The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn