As a therapist and the mother of three teenagers myself, I know firsthand that the more you push your kids, the more they get defensive and dig in their heels. They become reactive in the form of explosiveness or shutting down and ignoring you.
When they are not exploding, they are thinking the following: “My parents don’t have a clue, so what’s the point of trying to explain myself? I’ll just tune them out.”
Clamming up or exploding are both ways your teenagers attempt to manage their stress and defend themselves. In fact, these may be the only ways your teen knows how to communicate when things get intense—which of course only causes more conflict.
Here are 5 secrets that I’ve found to be really helpful for communicating with kids through the difficult adolescent years.
Here’s a simple secret that will help you in everything you do with your teen. No matter how hard it might be, try to start all interactions with your child with understanding, even if you don’t fully agree or even quite comprehend what they’re talking about.
Here’s an example. You find your child online chatting with her friends when she is supposed to be doing her schoolwork. It drives you crazy because you’re thinking, “She’s barely getting by in school and she doesn’t seem to care or understand that she needs to do her homework.”
Your teen, on the other hand, is thinking, “I have to get online and talk with Skyler. If we don’t make up after the fight we had in the hall today, all the other girls will be against me.”
You and your child are living in two different realities. Ask your child, honestly, why she is chatting. Try to be understanding of her reality, even if you don’t completely get it. Once you know what is going on, try saying:
“I understand how difficult it is for you when you have a fight with one of your friends. I also know that you need to pass this test tomorrow. Schoolwork is your job and it’s your responsibility to do it to the best of your abilities. Let’s sit down and think of a good way you can manage your time tonight.”
Try not to say “I understand, but…” which will simply disqualify what you’ve just said. Start from a place of understanding, and try to put yourself in your child’s shoes first before telling her what needs to change.
I’ve found that doing this tends to open kids’ ears. Instead of feeling like they have to defend themselves against you, they actually listen.
Emotion is your enemy when you’re trying to get through to your teen. Remind yourself that what he says and does is not a reflection on you. You may not like how he’s behaving—or even how he’s thinking—but keep your emotions out of it, even if his behavior impacts you.
I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. It’s tough, but it’s very, very effective and is a skill you can learn just like any other. In fact, I tell parents to repeat this mantra to themselves before talking to their kids:
“This is just the job of parenting. It’s not personal.”
When you really think about it, there’s no reason to be mad at your child for being himself. He may be making a poor choice, but the truth is, he might not yet have the skill set to make a better one. So your job is to help guide him to better choices so he can, in turn, develop better problem-solving skills.
Try to just focus on your job as a parent, it will help you be less emotional. When you feel frustrated, remember, don’t take it personally. Initially, your child won’t like you when you set boundaries. Tell yourself that this is simply a problem to solve and part of parenting business as usual.
Ask your teen for his ideas and be collaborative. Let him see that you believe in him and that you’re not mad at him for struggling in his life. When you let him see that you have faith in his abilities and he has the space to work things out on his own, you will begin to develop true confidence in him.
Don’t ask loaded questions that put your child on the defensive. Questions such as “Why can’t you get up on time? What’s wrong with you?” just lead to conflict, not solution. Instead, try opening a conversation with:
“Eli, do you have any ideas for how you might get up on time?”
If he says he doesn’t know, offer a few of your own and ask which one would work for him. Let your teen know that his problems are his to solve. Don’t step into his “box.” Give him the opportunity—yes, opportunity—to solve his own problems.
But, be sure to let him know that you are there to help him figure out solutions, to consult with him. Oh, and be sure to let him deal with the natural consequences of his behaviors. Owning the problem means owning the consequences.
Your ultimate goal is to help your child think for himself. Thinking for himself will, in turn, help him feel like he has some control over his world.
Listen openly to what he says and ask him to think critically about each choice. What will work and what will be problematic about each decision? What would be the natural consequences of each choice, and how would he feel about dealing with that?
Don’t feel, or show, as if you need your teen’s cooperation, validation, or good behavior. As soon as you need something from your child so that you can feel better, you have put yourself in a vulnerable position because he does not have to give it to you.
When you need something and don’t get it, you will naturally try harder by controlling and manipulating more. And your teen will become more and more defiant or passively compliant—neither of which is good.
The truth is, you don’t need anyone else to prop you up. You can validate yourself and solve your own problems. So if your child is acting out, that’s his problem. Your problem is to decide how you will choose to behave toward him. That’s in your hands, not his.
Ask yourself, “How do I want to act, no matter how he is acting? What can I put up with and what can’t I?” Take back your power and say to yourself, “If my child is screaming at me, instead of needing him to stop, I can turn around and walk away and not engage.”
Let your child know you won’t talk with him until he can approach you with civility. Here’s the truth: when you aren’t trying to get your child to change or shape up, you will be able to think of better choices for yourself. And your child will be less defiant because he will have no one to resist. When you’re not trying to control him and you’re not reacting to him, he will have to wrestle with himself rather than with you.
Another rule of thumb is to avoid doing anything until you and your child have both calmed down. The fact is, you don’t have to respond to your child when you are upset or when your child is upset and in your face. You can say nothing. You can take a few minutes or more if you need to.
When emotions have evened out, you can sit down and talk with him. It’s never good to try to bring up a difficult subject or resolve a conflict in the heat of the moment. So if either you or your child is upset, pause and come back when you can address things in a calmer way.
If you attempt a conversation with your child and he’s rude or out of line, that’s when you have to hold on to yourself and make sure you don’t get dragged into a fight. If your relationship with your child currently is such that it’s impossible to have an open, respectful conversation, remember that it’s still your job to stay firmly planted.
Have a slogan that you say to yourself like, “I’m not going there no matter what.” If you can do that consistently, over time the baiting and antagonism should calm down. This is called self-talk and it really works.
And don’t feel badly if you get pulled back into a fight occasionally—staying strong isn’t easy. The good news is that the more you refuse to engage, the easier it will get to stay calm.
Does Your Child Give You the Silent Treatment? 6 Rules for Getting Kids to Talk
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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.
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Thank you for reaching out and sharing your story. Many parents feel guilt over things they have or haven't done as parents. It can be easy to second guess choices you've made while raising your children and wonder if this is what has caused your child's struggles. I am sure you have done the best you could as a parent. We have a great article that gives tips for how to let go of this parenting guilt: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/am-i-a-bad-parent-how-to-let-go-of-parenting-guilt/
We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community. Take care.
One thing I’ve found helpful is to have a conversation with my son as though I’m a consultant. The way I do this is to ask what he wants and why, then outline clear expectations on how to get there.
For example, he wanted to buy a car and we sat down and came up with a plan. I asked him what he would need and so we priced a car at about $5,000, then he came up with different ideas for jobs, and then we discussed how to get started. I didn’t tell him what to do, I just helped guide him and talk through ideas.
My son and I have used a lot of the lessons at a site called preparemykid.com to look at different topics without me having to lecture him.
My 16 year old daughter has become very disrespectful and started doing things a 16 year old girl should not be doing. Up until about 6 months ago my daughter was happy would talk to me about certain things but not all things. I have always been the kind of mother who kept a good amount of control on my daughter due to the world she is growing up in. She got into trouble at school for taking a pic of another girl in a bathroom selfie and the school put her in ISD for 2 weeks since that is not permitted in the school. I never voiced my opinion of this to her but I did feel it was a bit ridiculous. She has started staying in her room allot after that and has become more mouthy. I found out Monday that she has adult relations with a boy Saturday night after I went to bed she snuck out of my house to do stuff that she had no business doing.
I am at a loss as to how to fix this before it gets to bad. She will not talk to me about personal stuff anymore and avoids me at all cost. I did freak out a bunch when I found out about the boy and I did scream at her and now she is mad at me for punishing her for her making a huge mistake. The bad part is I am getting over the Adult relations part I am more upset with the fact that she invited a 18yr old boy to my house and snuck out to do something that she knew I would not approve of.
I talk with a lot of parents, and they tell me their kids talk back to them and disrespect them. I’ve seen it too. I’m not sure why, but a lot of kids don’t have the respect for adults like they did when I was growing up.
I also think kids don’t learn communication skills like how to talk to someone if you’re upset or having a bad day, or how to have an adult conversation if you disagree with someone or don’t understand them.
I’ve worked with a lot of kids, and they mean well, but many of them just don’t know how to express themselves or their feelings and emotions. The interesting thing is that they only need a small push in the right direction to do well.
Hi there, I want suggest what can be the first question you ask that will show your deep concern, and show him that you are on "his" side:
"Son, I just received an email from your Teacher about your failing grade, and I want to know HOW I CAN SUPPORT YOU so you can quickly get back on-track before we would have to take more serious measures of restricting your social life, or other restrictions that NEITHER of us will be happy with?"
In a question like that, you have:
1. Let him know you care
2. Let him know you are willing to help him in any way
3. Given him an opportunity to take charge of HIS issue and be responsible
4. Essentially, and "nicely" given him due-warning BEFORE he gets grounded, or restricted in some way
5. Let him know that you would get NO joy in restricting him so there is less chance he will get adversarial and oppositional towards you because you are ON HIS "TEAM"
I hope this helps in some way! Report back!
My 14 year old son has taken an interest in girls this year. He plays sports and tends to be on his phone talking to his friends more often now than in the past . I'm glad that he has found a social life as I consider this to be healthy for his personal growth, however I just received an email from his teacher where she indicates his grades are in risk of failure . Even she is surprise by the change.
My question is , how do I talk to my son iabout this without coming actos accusatory . Has any parent gone through this before ? How did you handled it? Did it work ? Did it not? And why.
Thank you for your help
Single mom of 4
I have a 15 year old daughter and she is
going through some changes and she is down in the dumps most of the time. Her
friends that she use to have are changing for different reasons and she is
trying to make new friends. I really think if she would get involved with some
school activities it would help with the transition but she is a
little on the reserved side. I would love to advice to get her to meet some
It can be quite
difficult for both the parent and child when your teen’s social circle starts
to change. Supporting your daughter in making new friends, and helping her to
identify opportunities to do so is a great step. For some kids, getting
involved in after school activities can be one option. Other options might
include community-based activities, volunteering, or classes geared toward her
interests. Sara Bean outlines some additional steps you might take in her
article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-cool-kids-how-to-help-your-child-or-teen-deal-with-peer-pressure-exclusion-and-cliques/. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things
are going for you and your daughter. Take care.
It sounds like you are just starting out, trying to
establish new-to-your-daughter rules and limits in your home. This can be a
good opportunity to make a list of all the behaviors you have concerns about
and prioritize them, starting with the most serious ones first. Trying to
address all of her behaviors at once will likely leave everyone feeling
overwhelmed, and can cause inconsistency in follow-through. Empowering Parents
author Carole Banks has a good article to help you get started titled, “https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-childs-behavior-is-so-bad-where-do-i-begin-how-to-coach-your-child-forward/.
Trying to explain your reasoning to a teenager will often fall on deaf ears, so
it will be best to establish a couple clear-cut rules or limits, problem solve
with her how she intends to follow those rules, and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-get-your-child-to-listen-9-secrets-to-giving-effective-consequences/ when she breaks them. You can also check out our many
articles on https://www.empoweringparents.com/?s=Stealing
and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/running-away-part-i-why-kids-do-it-and-how-to-stop-them/ for tools geared to those specific behaviors, and check back with us
if you have any more questions. Best of luck to your family.
Dealing with someone who doesn’t appear to want any
sort of interaction must be quite frustrating. As frustrating as it may be, try
not to give the behavior too much attention. Doing so could give it much more
power than it deserves. Instead, reach out to your child once then leave the
ball in his/her court, as James Lehman suggests in the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/does-your-child-give-you-the-silent-treatment-6-rules-for-getting-kids-to-talk/.
Something to keep in mind - it’s not unusual for adolescents and teens to pull
away from parents as they progress through the developmental stage of
individuation. During this stage of development, kids tend to reach out to
friends and peers for support much more often than they do their parents. As
long as your child is following other household rules and expectations, I
wouldn’t put too much focus on trying to make him/her talk.
Lying is a tough behavior to deal with for a lot of parents.
It may be helpful to know that lying is more about your daughter’s lack of
problem solving skills than anything else. She wants to do something she knows
you won’t allow her to do, so, she solves the problem by doing it anyway and
then lying about it. It’s not OK, but, it is a common way teens try to avoid
consequences for their actions. We have several articles that give tips for
dealing with this frustrating behavior. Two in particular you may find helpful
are How to Deal with Lying in Children and Teens & “I Caught My Child Lying” — How to Manage Sneaky Behavior in Kids. I hope
you find those articles useful. Be sure to check back if you have any further
questions. Take care.
@Wits end Dear Wit's End- DO NOT give up. I am no pro (though I am a psychologist, and the 100% committed mom of a very challenging foster boy we adopted at 12, 6 years ago now). She sounds very typical. It is her job (and her developmental stage) to push away from you. And guess what our job is? Be strong, consistent, gentle, loving, and focused. Hard as hell and when I look back at what we went through, and truthfully, I cannot believe we survived to see him as a decent, capable almost 19 year old. Suffice to say it was a little worse than what you describe with your peanut. Here are my 'tweet size' recommendations for each of your concerns. 1) 'Getting her to open up'- nothing works like available/unintentional time. She needs to do it on her time, not yours. You need to 'coincidentally' be in the kitchen when she grabs a snack, ready to drive when she needs a lift to a friend's house or to the mall, tidying the kitchen when she gets home from school/dance/whatver at least every now and then... the more time you free up for them to talk to you, the greater the chances you will get the good stuff. 2) "Defensive, not doing what she's asked"- see above. It is her job to buck your pleas. Keep asking. Stay 'on message' (the greatest advice we got to avoid getting dragged into absurd fights) Even if you lose the battle half the time, or she only does half the job you asked, you have also won half the battle and she is the better for it. 3) 'Hates you" - Oh, we all know that one. She just may. Move on. You aren't in a popularity contest- no one likes forced structure- esp. teens! Do you have curly hair? It would curl on its own if I repeat the things our beloved boy said to me! For laughs... he scrawled one message on the counter after the housekeeper left... in cursive ketchup- and texted me with it!!! I can only laugh about it now, months later 4) "No motivation in school"... my husband and I focused on one goal.. make sure he gets a HS diploma, ideally, convocating with his peers. To say we moved mountains (private convo's with teachers, constant discussions with VP's, bribes (to him, not the teachers! ..we called them 'incentives"), mom and dad, elaborate song and dance routines every single morning to get him to go, tender/gentle/ painful conversations from school when he thought he would just drop out). He swore he'd quit every month, every year, and many days! He is the very proud recipient of a HS diploma today, and heading to college in the fall.
Ok, long way of saying... stick it out. She is worth it. A friend of mine, with 4 beautiful young adults who were little sticky hell goblins for much of their teens told me, "concentrate on the person he can be, and will be, not the person screaming like an escaped lunatic at you right now".... I have, did, do, and now he is becoming that person. :-) Good luck. She will not thank you any time soon (if ever), but society will, for raising a decent kid.
Thank you for this encouraging article. I have a 20 year old son who lost his scholarship because he got himself into taking weeds with his friends. since I could not pay for his school fees, I had him moved to another college where he had some friends from high school but unfortunately, his behavior got worse whereby he and his friends used someone else credit card and other ungodly values. I have asked him to look for another college and move closer to home but he has consistently refused. how else can I handle this situation?
I can understand your concern. From what you have written,
your son has made some poor choices. It can be tough when your adult child
continues to make choices that you know are not in his best interest. Bear in
mind, your son is now an adult and can choose to live wherever he wishes. As
his parent, it’s up to you to determine what your limits and boundaries are in
relation to your son and his choices. So, in the situation you describe, you
might consider whether or not you will continue to support him, financially or
otherwise, if he continues to make the choices he is making. While
wanting to protect your child is a normal response, allowing him to face the
consequences of his choices is probably going to be more effective. Rescuing a
child rarely has the wished for outcome. Rather than offer him the opportunity
to make a fresh start, which is usually the intent, it may instead encourage
him to continue making bad choices because he has never had to experience the
natural consequences of his actions. It’s probably going to be more beneficial
to switch your focus to taking care of yourself, as Debbie Pincus discusses in
the article Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices. For example, you might
develop a self care plan, that includes things like spending time doing an
activity you enjoy or talking with friends. You might also consider looking
into more formal resources, like a support group or counselor. The transition
from childhood into adulthood can be a tough one for both kids and parents.
Finding ways of taking care of yourself can help make it less rocky. I
appreciate you writing in and hope you will continue to check back to let us
know how things are going. Take care.