Help, my teen has stopped communicating

Dear Jenny Jackson

My 15-year-old daughter has stopped communicating. Over the past couple of years my chatty, open girl has gradually disappeared. I get one-word answers to questions or that ‘speak to the hand’ kind of attitude – complete with eye-rolling. If I try to talk to her, I can see her eyes glaze over and that makes me just want to try harder and louder, even though I know it’s no good. My worry is, “How do I know what’s going on in her life, if she needs help, or if she’s doing okay?” I don’t even really know whether or not she is happy. Do I keep pushing for information or do I step back and leave her to it? She is capable, doing okay at school and still playing sport, but I feel confused and powerless.

Jenny’s tips

Be assured that you’re not alone. This is a challenge for a lot of parents as their teens move from dependent children to independent adults, and they have to hand over increasing levels of responsibility and freedom to their teenagers. It is entirely appropriate that our teens have a growing need for privacy. However, this needs to be a balance. There’s a place for both privacy and family connections. They’re still working out their own values and identities, developing their abilities to assess situations and make good decisions – things that are so important we can’t just leave them to it. We have a role to play until they leave our house as adults, even then, kids often still ask for their parents’ advice and support. What changes is the amount of support we provide and how we offer it. This is a great time for parents to tune their communication style to ensure it is ‘teen friendly’ and effective.

Here are some strategies that work really well for teens and parents –

  • Keep instructions short – no long lectures
  • Ensure your voice is calm and warm. Take the fight or desperation out of it.
  • Use gentle humour when you can to keep the atmosphere light.
  • Talk side-by-side not face-to-face, e.g. in the car, doing dishes or cooking together.
  • Use open-ended questions that require more than yes/no answers. “What do you think of that song?” “What was the trickiest thing about the exam?” “What did you like about the movie?”
  • Acknowledge their successes, improvements and help, but don’t make it a big deal unless it is a big deal. In other words, don’t over-praise.
  • Convey affection and approval with a wink or a hand on a shoulder in passing.
  • Use notes to remind them about chores rather than nag. Notes are great for saying, “Thank you”, “Have a good day,” and generally keeping in touch. Texts are good too.
  • Listen really carefully, focus on what they’re saying (and not on what you want to say), and ask questions to clarify what they mean.
  • Plant seeds or make brief suggestions. “I was thinking about what you were saying the other day and I wonder if this idea would help…”
  • Let them know you have advice if they need or want it. “Let me know if you need help with that. I’m sure we could come up with some ideas.”
  • Reassure them that you think they’ve ‘got a good head on their shoulders’ or they’ve ‘got what it takes’ to make a good decision, but you’re there if they need your help.
  • If you’ve got something tricky to talk about, book it in. “I need to talk to you about your allowance. It doesn’t seem to be working. Can you have a think about it and we’ll catch up after dinner tomorrow, okay?” When you need to make changes to family rules, use expressions such as, “Does that sound fair?” – this makes room for your teen’s input.

These strategies give teens room to think for themselves while letting them know we think they’re capable and intelligent.


The outcome

I was so relieved when you said don’t just leave her to it! That option hadn’t been sitting right with me and I realised I had gone down that track because I didn’t know what else to do. Now I’m working on the balance between staying involved and giving her enough space. I think I’m getting my head around that and it seems to be working better. I’ve used the ideas about no long lectures and keeping a warm tone of voice. My daughter seems to have noticed and we have managed to have a few brief conversations in the car. It’s so difficult to listen without jumping in with my opinions! I so desperately want her to make good decisions and avoid failures and disappointment. That desperation was getting in the way of enjoying what has been going well. I’ve been reminding myself that she is managing school and sport just fine. Thanks for your help. I now understand I can do this, that it is still my job to be the parent and even when it’s tough, I can handle it.