Behaviour & Emotions

Help! My teen won't talk to me

My teen wont talk to me

Your teenager has begun to keep their bedroom door closed, they spend more and more time with their friends (either online or in person), they walk around the house with their noise-cancelling headphones on, and only seem to grunt at the dinner table when you ask them how their day was. You’ve accepted that now your beloved bubbly child has become a teenager, they have begun to withdraw from you and act like they don’t need you anymore. We tell ourselves that our teenager needs more autonomy and to figure out who they are, but we wonder how much influence we’re able to still have with them.

The temptation is to move away and give your teenager the much-needed space that this stage of development requires. After all, everything we say seems to be wrong anyway, right? Retreat seems the safest option when one’s teenager constantly disagrees, rolls their eyes, yells at you to ‘leave me alone’ or simply stops talking to you altogether.

Hold on, you’re still needed!

For our teenagers to become healthy, functional adults, they do need to go through the process of individuation and establish their own sense of autonomy. But does this mean that we step back and leave them to it? As a Parent Coach, I encourage parents of teenagers that despite appearances, our teenagers still need a strong connection with us. According to research published in the journal of Paediatrics & Child Health, the successful transition of adolescents to healthy autonomy and adulthood is facilitated by a secure attachment and emotional connectedness with parents. This secure attachment is associated with less engagement in high-risk behaviours, fewer mental health problems and enhanced social skills and coping strategies.[i] So, although our role may have shifted from the more intensive input of the younger years into a coach on the sidelines of their lives, the need for connection, acceptance, and warmth is still paramount.

Although our role may have shifted from the more intensive input of the younger years into a coach on the sidelines of their lives, the need for connection, acceptance, and warmth is still paramount.

They may not admit to it in so many words, but our teenagers still want to spend time with us and are still interested in our perspective. Our teenagers may protest loudly their need for privacy and autonomy, but could be less clear and obvious about their need for connection and acceptance with us. How do we balance these seemingly opposite needs in our parenting approaches? Afterall we can’t force our kid to connect with us.

Who goes first?

Here at Parenting Place, our Parent Coaches talk about ‘Front-footing the connection’. Essentially this means parents taking the initiative to organise some quality time with their teens or instigate those tricky but necessary conversations. (For example, check out this article on talking to teens about consent.

While it is important for us to initiate positive interactions with our teenagers, often more meaningful connections occur when our teenager initiates with us. In part this is because, when teens take the lead to reach out to us, it supports their need for autonomy – essentially, they are calling the shots and have decided that they want to talk to us. It gives them a sense that they are in control of the conversation rather than feeling like they have to listen to another long lecture from Dad. Dr Lisa Damour, in her book The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, talks about letting teens set the terms of engagement when it comes to helping them open up. She encourages parents to stand ready - even though the terms may work better for our teens than they do for us.

When teens take the lead to reach out to us, it supports their need for autonomy – essentially, they are calling the shots.

Subtle, but significant

How do we know when our teenager is taking the initiative to connect with us? It isn’t always obvious! Sometimes their need to talk can be hidden underneath conflict and moodiness. Sometimes it seems like they speak a language we no longer understand. And often, as parents/busy adults, we’re distracted by the everyday chores of life, family and work.

One concept that I have found to be really helpful in figuring out when our teens are reaching out to us for connection is through the research of Drs John and Julie Gottman. The Gottmans uncovered a pattern around how people in relationships interact with each other. They observed that in everyday situations, one person would initiate a moment of connection. It could be obvious or more subtle, physical or verbal. They call these ‘bids for connection’ – one person reaching out for attention, affirmation, affection or inviting any form of positive connection. It could be a simple as, ‘Look at that bird over there’ – an invitation to join them in something they find interesting. It could be as subtle as a sigh – an invitation for the other person to ask them about or join them in their current emotional state.

The Gottmans also observed that a bid for connection is often responded to in one of three different ways.[ii]

  1. Turning toward: A positive or affirming response, acknowledging the other person and engaging with their attempt to connect.

  2. Turning away: No response, actively ignoring or just not noticing the bid for connection.

  3. Turning against: Responding irritably or angrily to actively shut down the attempt to connect.

What does a ‘bid for connection’ look like coming from a teenager?

Occasionally our teens may be really obvious about when they want to talk to us and make a clear bid:

  • Your teen walks into the kitchen while you’re making dinner and starts telling you about the stressful day they had at school.

That’s handy – you can chat while you peel spuds together.

But sometimes the bid may not be convenient:

  • It’s 9pm, it’s raining and cold outside, you’re in your PJs and you’ve just sat down to your favourite Netflix series. Your teen comes out of their bedroom and says, “Mum, can we go for a drive and get some ice-cream?”
  • It’s 10.30pm and you’re tucked up in bed ready to sleep when your teen walks into your bedroom, plonks himself on your bed and starts talking.
  • You’ve picked your son up from his Saturday game and there are three loads of washing waiting for you (including the smelly kit he is still wearing). Your son starts to bemoan some of the coach’s decisions about the team just as you pull into your driveway.
  • You’re about to watch the rugby and your daughter sits down next to you, sighs, and groans that their maths homework is so stupid, and their maths teacher is an idiot.
  • You’ve had a stressful day at work, you are about to take the dog out for a walk to get some space and your teen asks if they can come with you.

Turn towards

When we notice our teen making an obvious bid for connection, we have a choice - do we turn towards, turn away, or turn against.

You know what I’m going to say, don’t you.... Embrace the inconvenience and go with it. Turn towards![iii] When it's initiated by your teen, the interaction and connection is likely to be far richer and more enjoyable, and your teenager is more likely to open up to you.

Turning towards can be as simple as literally turning towards your teen physically, looking warmly at them and showing in your eyes that you are pleased to see them. It can look like responding with interest by asking open questions (but try and avoid asking a question beginning with ‘why’, as this can put them on the defensive). It can look like making affirming statements, reflecting back what your teen says or simply showing empathy through soothing noises - ‘Hmm’, ‘Aha’, ‘Wow’. Or through physical touch – a rub on the shoulder, a squeeze of the knee, or hug if they’re up for that.

Embrace the inconvenience and go with it. Turn towards!

Other bids from teenagers may look more subtle. For example:

  • As simple as one person sitting down next to the other one.
  • As subtle as a sigh as they drop their school bag on the floor.
  • A casual remark, ‘Ella got a new iPhone today’.
  • A negative complaint (which can be very triggering for us as parents).

A subtle bid could also look like a change in their routine – instead of keeping their headphones in when they get home from school, you notice that they have taken them out while they potter around in the kitchen making themselves a snack.

On one occasion in my family, the family had all dispersed throughout the house after dinner, other than my son who had stayed sitting on the sofa quietly. As he usually heads off to his room at this stage of the day, I noticed the difference in routine and asked him what was on his mind. What followed was a rich conversation where he was able to be vulnerable about some questions and thoughts that he had been mulling over for some time. I felt so grateful, given that I could have so easily ‘turned away’ by carrying on with the cleaning up and ignoring his less than obvious bid for connection.

I felt so grateful, given that I could have so easily ‘turned away’ by carrying on with the cleaning up and ignoring his less than obvious bid for connection.

The greatest investment

A bid for connection doesn’t always mean a deep conversation is required. Sometimes it can just be about a physical closeness. For example, my affection loving daughter, after a hard day, may squeeze herself into a very small space on the sofa next to me. She doesn’t need me to say anything in these moments. However, if I’m hot, tired or feeling stressed myself, I could be tempted to respond by finding more room for myself (turning against) – or I could put my need for personal space aside in that moment and let her snuggle there for as long as she needs (turn towards).

Another way of looking at it - every time you ‘turn towards’ your teen when they make a bid for connection, imagine you are making a deposit into their emotional bank account. The more we can deposit into their emotional bank account, the safer they feel, the more trust is built and connection is strengthened. If we want our teens to tell us about what is going on in their lives, come to us when they need help, or - shock horror(!) - ask us for advice, making these deposits in their emotional tanks creates a fertile environment for this to happen.

It's a massive misconception that for connection to be meaningful we must give hours of time to it, the Gottmans kindly remind us. But in noticing a teen’s small, everyday bids for connection and responding by turning towards them, we are little by little adding to their emotional bank account. The Gottmans’ research also emphasises that the best relationships are not those where every bid for connection is responded to with a ‘turning toward’, but rather where more are responded to positively than not. So don’t feel that if you miss one coming from your teen and unintentionally ‘turn away’ that you have messed up – there will be another and we may gradually get better at noticing them.

Ultimately when parenting teens, our influence is only as strong as our connection with them.

To sum it up, whatever the situation, responding positively to our teens’ bids for connection, even the seemingly small, unimportant ones, signals to them that we are interested in them and their world. It all adds to the filling of the emotional tank – it shows that we are responsive and available. It can create a fertile environment for positive communication and may allow us to still have some influence in our teens’ lives while also supporting their autonomy. Ultimately when parenting teens, our influence is only as strong as our connection with them. So next time they share that cute kitten reel with you, rather than despairing about the hours they may have spent staring at their phone, reframe it as your teenager saw something and thought of you and by sending it you, they are indirectly attempting a connection and potentially sparking a conversation, although it may only be about kittens in this instance!

[i] Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development | Paediatrics & Child Health | Oxford Academic (

[ii] The concept of ‘bids for connection’ has been adapted from the Gottman’s work and is a concept that they have written about in many of their books and articles. See website for more details.

[iii] Our parent coaches are trained as facilitators in the Australian Tuning Into Kids program. The program for teenagers (Tuning Into Teens) expands the concept of ‘bids for connection’ to the parent-teen relationship and has provided some of the inspiration for this article.

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Sanna Finch

Sanna Finch is our Parent Coach specialising in the teenage years. With over 21 years of experience parenting her own three kids (young people she still enjoys hanging out with!), she loves walking alongside parents, especially as they navigate the turbulent waters of raising teens. Sanna also practices as a Social Worker in a healthcare setting, primarily supporting parents going through significant stress and trauma. In her spare time Sanna enjoys exploring New Zealand’s tramping tracks and cuddles with her dog.

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