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“Roy, how do I get my teen to open up. I feel like they’re shut down and now they’re shutting me out.”
Communicating with teens is tough. Its especially tough when they’ve shut down and closed the door to the communication process. For parents, this can be frustrating, scary and confusing. Here are a few tips for understanding and dealing with a shut down teenager:
Understand the Problem
Too often we try to get “shut down” teens to open up without fully understanding why they’re shut down. This is like prescribing medicine for an unknown illness. It’s understandable that adults want to do something to fix the problem, especially if it’s your own child. And while doing something, feels better than doing nothing, taking the extra time up front (in non urgent situations) will save you time later and prove to be more effective.
Ask Curious Questions
Our natural inclination when trying to get shut down teens to open up and communicate is to talk more. This talking usually takes the form on monologues, which your teen probably refers to as a “lecture”, “rant” or “nagging.” You may have tried to ask questions in the past to no avail. Too often, we are not asking the right questions. The right questions, asked in the right tone of voice, at the right time gets most teens to engage in communicating. In the sidebar or at the end of this post you can download “The Little Book of Questions that Really Get Teens Talking.” Sometimes, when questions don’t work you may consider enlisting the help of another significant adult in the teen’s life or consider utilizing counseling.
Often teens tell me they stop talking to their parents (“shut down”) because “they (their parents) just don’t listen.” To which parents respond, “But Roy, I do listen! He won’t listen to me!” This is a very common, seemingly insurmountable impasse in parenting a teenager. As the adult, you must take the initiative to bridge the gap by asking “What is it you’re trying to tell me that I’m not hearing. I promise I’ll just listen and I won’t respond, other than to make sure I’m really understanding what you’re telling me. Fair?” If you’re sincere and follow through with your commitment to listen and not respond, your teen will usually open up. They may not tell you what you want to hear. They may be “wrong.” But at least they’re talking to you and are not shut down.
Sometimes, if we’re honest, we allow our teens to “shut down” because we really don’t want to hear or are tired of hearing what they’re telling us. It’s important to know this and name it for yourself, and it may even be appropriate to say that to your teenager when the time is right.
Don’t Give Up
When parents feel helpless, overwhelmed and exhausted it is tempting to give up. Some will even tell me “Roy, I know my teen is shut down, but I’ve tried everything and I’m tired. I don’t know what else to do, so I just leave them alone.” Even though this is what it feels like and seems like your teenager wants, trust me it is not what your teen wants. For the last twenty years teens have told me over and over again, despite not telling this to their parents, that what they want most is a meaningful relationship with their parents. Sometimes knowing this helps you to persevere when it feels like your teen wants nothing to do with you. In the first two chapters of my book What Teens Want You to Know (But Don’t Tell You), I offer several stories from real teens who state this explicitly.