“I know the day will come when he won’t talk to me anymore.” Parents say this to me in my pediatric office all the time. There is an idea that one day teenagers, particularly boys, won’t want to talk with their parents anymore. But that is simply not true.
Parents can create a family culture of communication so that kids will keep wanting to talk with them as they get older. And that’s not only great news, it’s essential. Because when things get tough for our kids, it’s important that they know they can come to us.
When kids are young, the goal is to create a family culture of openness and honesty about hard things. One of the first steps is to simply call things what they are. Either minimizing problems or blowing them out of proportion sends the message that we can’t really talk about things. But telling it like it is sets us free to grapple with challenges.
For example, when kids in my practice ask me, “Doctor, will the shot hurt?” I say, “Of course it will.” Because kids are used to adults soothing them with lies, my response surprises them, and they start listening. “Would you like to know what you can do to make it hurt less?” I ask them before telling them how.
Once you’ve told the truth about a situation, try to take a collaborative problem-solving approach with your kids. Instead of telling them what to do, express your faith in them by exploring the issue together. Listen to them without immediately trying to fix them. When your message is “We can figure this out together,” and you invite kids to work with you, it is amazing how often kids will simply tell you the solution. Practice with little things so you have the skills in place when the big problems come up.
Kids are more likely to engage in collaboration with us if we have sent a consistent message that their opinions matter. When they are young and are constantly telling you about what they notice, say, “That’s an interesting observation. Tell me more.” When they are sorting something out, ask, “What’s your perspective on that?” or “How are you thinking about that?” These questions send a message of respect for them and their abilities to figure things out.
Avoiding Shutting Kids Down
When taking steps to open communication, well-meaning parents often undermine themselves with two bad habits. Often, these mistakes happen when parents get worried about what they should say and forget to listen openly. But both of these habits shut down communication by sending the message that emotions are unacceptable.
The first and more obvious mistake is the old-school “tough it out” mentality. When parents tell their kids to “Suck it up, buttercup,” they may be sharing what their own parents told them as kids. But they are also sending a message that emotions or struggles are weak or shameful. Kids cannot work through problems if it is unacceptable to have those problems in the first place.
The second way parents shut down the conversation with kids is less obvious. Parents who are committed to being supportive may overdo it. They hover, helicopter-style, always monitoring their kids’ feelings. Unfortunately, that level of attention sends the message that emotions are dangerous. Parents’ frantic attempts to comfort their children send the message that emotions are too much for the parent. Children learn that they cannot be trusted to handle their own emotions.
And because the hovering actually irritates kids, they may start to see themselves as irritable people. Kids with helicopter parents frequently learn to shut down their emotions if only to get some relief from their parents’ constant check-ins to “make sure they are OK.” In private, kids often tell me they have hidden their mental health struggles so their parents wouldn’t overreact. They only admit them to me once they’ve gotten severe.
Lastly, when tough-it-out parents get worried enough, they can confuse their children by suddenly acting like helicopter parents. They may even demand that their children share their vulnerable emotions. But if their kids do open up, it often backfires because such parents aren’t used to working with emotions and don’t have much to offer.
Setting a New Tone With Older Kids
What if your kids are older and the communication has not been open? It is definitely not too late. The key is to be frank with your kids. Have a family meeting and tell them that you recognize that conversation has not always been easy. Admit that knowing how to talk about emotions or mental health has been hard for you and that you might have sent a message encouraging kids to keep it to themselves. Invite them to join the conversation, but do not demand it.
Try something like this, “I have not always known how to handle this. I’ve also just learned that what I thought was helping might not have been helping. What’s your perspective? I want to be there for you and I love you. Can we try to figure this out together?”
If your teen is not ready to engage, open the door for an apology. Tell them you recognize your approach in the past might even have hurt them or made them feel shame. Invite them to share it with you and, without excuses, take responsibility and apologize. Share that you don’t always know how to communicate with them, but you want to learn, and you are ready to listen. Ask them to tell you when you are overbearing.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a teen is just not ready to talk. If you are concerned about their mental health, do not hesitate. Get them set up with a therapist or meet with your pediatrician.
Kids really do want to talk to parents.
One of the most powerful things I’ve learned from two decades of talking with kids is how much they want to talk with their parents. Our kids want us to know them and love them for who they are. Most of the time when they stop talking it is because we’ve somehow sent the message that part of them is unacceptable to us. But if we can openly engage with them from our hearts, our kids will keep talking.