As adults, we recognize the range and depth of negative emotions we experience on hearing tragic news like the senseless, horrific acts of school shootings. We process our feelings by labeling and discussing them. Your teen child is also aware of these events but may lack the ability or the maturity to label their feelings in a healthy and healing way. He may be sharing with peers, but you need him to talk to you.
The quiet, moody teen is a concern for any parent, and getting your teen to open up can be difficult and challenging. From my years of working with adolescents I have found there are two main reasons teens won’t share with their parents.
The more obvious reason is the teen may be shy and the idea of having to express themselves feels like hard work. The less obvious reason, which is missed by many parents, is due to a teen’s passive-resistant behavior. These are teens who feel their parents are already too intrusive in their lives; therefore, they decide to make it difficult for their parents to intrude any further. These teens build up a wall to the intrusive parent.
A mother once told me when her son was 13 she had a very difficult time getting him to share. One approach she tried was to say, “If you don’t start sharing with me some of the things going on during your day, I’ll call your friends and ask them…” While she thought her approach was clever it didn’t work because her son saw through the hollow threat. The mother never did call the friends, who probably would have been annoyed to be put in that awkward situation and would have clammed up just like her son.
The operative idea is to refrain from passing judgment when your child or teenager shares how he sees and interprets what is going on around him. This isn’t always possible as there are times your teen may tell you something that as a “good parent” you must speak up. At that point, let them know that, based on what they told you, your opinion and wisdom are warranted. However, trying to keep open non-judgmental dialogue, when possible, will help your child to feel comfortable in coming to you with their feelings and concerns.
Recall the times when you yourself have shared intimately with a friend and remember that it was probably during a time of relaxation and diversion. You may have been enjoying lunch, shopping or a movie together, and the communication grew out of that shared time together.
Deep sharing needs time to develop. The best communicators make an extra effort to provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere for sharing thoughts and ideas. When children (and people in general) feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, they are likely to share more often and to share increasingly deeper thoughts.
And, if you must hold your child accountable for something they said during one of these sharing times, discuss your parental thoughts with them later in the day or evening. Preface your discussion with a compliment about something they said, and then bring up the issue that concerns you. At the end of this discussion, again compliment the child on some specific point of interest they brought up during the earlier conversation.
The goal in getting teenagers to share is for them to learn that communication with their parent can lead to a solution to their problems. This will then lead to the teen telling their parents more about their day, their friends and their life. They will see more of their problems are solved with parental participation than without it.
While many teens think they are smarter than their parents, we hope, over time, they learn that we have something they do not yet have, and that is wisdom that comes from experience. Yes, times have changed. Most of us never had to live with the idea that school could be an unsafe place, but many of us remember the feelings we had when we learned of other tragic events. After all, we do know something about life and the challenges faced during the teenage years.