Why Is It So Hard To Talk To Your Tween or Teen?

group of teens talking with skateboards and phones

Guest post by Michelle Icard, speaker and author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen

So often as parents, we long to connect with our tweens and teens, to share wisdom we hope will spare them trouble, to share inspiration we hope will encourage growth, or simply because we adore and miss them. And so often, our best intentions are met with stone cold resistance.

You ask your daughter how her math test went and she grumbles, “Ugh, I don’t know! Why are you making this into a thing?!” 

Your son asks to download a new game but when you tell him you need to know the price first, he throws his hands up and yells, “It’s not fair! You never want me to have fun anymore.”

Remember when talking with your child was simpler? When you didn’t have to imagine all the possible landmines you might trigger before opening your mouth? What happened? 

Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s them.

Understanding the Adolescent Construction Project

Every young adolescent embarks on a construction project to build the three things they need in order to become an adult. When I ask parents what they think those three things might be, they often suggest character traits like “responsibility,” “maturity” and “critical thinking.”

While these are all admirable qualities, and surely ones we want our children to grow into, we all know many adults who don’t have these mastered yet. It is quite possible to be an adult without hitting these targets. 

Your child’s current construction project consists of building three fundamental things they’ll need to become an adult: an adult brain, an adult body, and an adult identity.

An adult body is an easy concept for parents to grasp. Though puberty starts and progresses at slightly different rates for different kids, it follows a predictable and linear path. Plus, you can see it happening. From growth spurts to acne, you’re given lots of cues that your kid is on track and there is comfort in this confirmation. 

An adult brain is harder to see developing. One day, your child thinks rationally and communicates clearly. The next, they’re having a tantrum over chicken for dinner. Brain development often feels like it moves two steps forward, three steps back. 

An adult identity is my favorite piece of this puzzle, because it’s deeply rooted in social-emotional development–the part of adolescence I find most fascinating and intriguing. What does it mean to build an adult identity? Well, quite simply, it means figuring out who you are apart from your parents. 

Up to this point in your child’s life, you’ve handpicked most of the defining elements of their identity. You’ve orchestrated who they’ll have playdates with, chosen what clothes they’ll wear, and funneled your kids into sports, activities, and hobbies that suit your schedule, interests or parent friend group.

Now, your child wants to make decisions for themselves, including who they hang out with, what they enjoy doing, and what clothes best express their new sense of self.

Okay. But why does this mean they won’t talk with me anymore?

Because of this neurological and developmental need to figure out who they are as an individual at the onset of adolescence, your child will begin to feel a deep and pressing need to begin separating from you. 

It’s a normal and natural part of becoming independent, albeit messy, and sometimes even painful. When this urge for independence asserts itself, your child will look for ways to establish their autonomy.

Breaking down communication is often a first step in this process. Think of it anthropologically. Language is what ties groups together. And suddenly, your child needs to start pulling away and forming ties elsewhere. 

It’s the reason tweens and teens begin adopting slang. This new way of talking serves to purposefully encode their relationships with friends, at the same time they exclude adults, often mocking their ability to understand. When I was 13, if my mom kindly offered me a warm coat before heading out the door, it like, gagged me with a spoon. 

This frustrates parents immensely because just at the age the world opens up–presenting new opportunities that are sometimes exciting, sometimes dangerous, and exactly when kids need the most guidance–they stop talking with us. 

There’s only one thing to do. When your child starts middle school, it’s time to learn a new language. 

How do I learn to change the way I’ve always spoken?

For starters, I’m not suggesting you use slang. This tactic, used by some parents as a comedic approach, can be fun if it’s done minimally, good-naturedly, and if your teen plays along.

But when this approach is overused, passive aggressive, or even wholehearted, it usually ruins any attempt to engage your child. Leave that to their friends and instead, let’s look at a more practical (less humiliating) bridge to their world.

It’s simply time to change your approach. You can no longer rely on your old patterns. The humor that once brought forth reliable giggles now elicits eye rolls. A pat on the couch and invitation to snuggle is met with a hasty backing out of the room. So, let’s look at new ways you can invite engagement.

In my book, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen, I offer a new model for overcoming your language obstacles. Like a Rosetta Stone for learning how to speak to your tween or teen, it includes which approaches and phrases encourage communication, and which shut it down.

Most importantly, it will introduce you to a new format for all your conversations, whether you’re broaching big, thorny topics like a friendship breaking up or the pervasiveness of pornography, or trying to cover what ought to be simple topics like wearing deodorant or helping with household chores (that somehow still ignite a disproportionate response). I call this new approach the BRIEF model. 

BRIEF is an acronym, each letter representing a step in your conversation. But before I explain what each letter means, it’s important to point out that it spells brief for a reason.

Your tween or teen appreciates when conversations are short and succinct. Don’t focus on fitting everything into one talk. In fact, many brief conversations over time are more effective than one giant, “checked-the-box!” conversation.

And remember, a conversation is not a lecture. It takes two willing participants to have a good talk, so approach your tween or teen during a neutral or happy time, not when emotions are running high. 

Introducing the BRIEF Model

B – begin peacefully. Parents tell me the hardest part of talking to their tween or teen is knowing how to get started. The fear of being shut down leads many parents to skip hard conversations altogether, or to blurt out the most crucial information in what feels like their allotted ten seconds before their teen calls it quits.

Instead, start peacefully. This can be achieved by scheduling a time to talk later (no kid likes feeling ambushed) or by expressing gentle and broad curiosity about a subject rather than beginning by asking your child a personal question.

“We need to talk about vape. You haven’t tried it, have you?” is a good example of how not to start. Instead, you might open the conversation more subtly, as in “I read an article about kids vaping during class and wondered if it was an exaggeration. I’m curious if kids your age think adults are overreacting to vape.”

R – relate to your child. Your tween or teen may seem automatically defensive when you want to talk. You can disarm them by starting your conversation with empathy or relatability.

Establishing that you’ve felt or done similarly, or that you remember what it was like, is a nice way to get on the same page early. “When I was your age, vape didn’t exist but I can remember lots of people smoked. Cigarette companies even advertised to kids using cartoon characters.” 

I – interview for data. If you’re curious what your child knows or feels about a topic, ask, and do this with an open mind. You’re not asking them questions to catch them in a misunderstanding or to prove a point.

This is a very neutral, fact-finding mission meant to show what a calm and nonjudgmental listener you can be for them, as well as to establish some baseline facts for discussion. “Have you read anything about the lasting health effects of vape?”

E – echo what you hear. Now that you’ve heard what your child thinks, make sure you really understand. You might say something like, “This helps me understand. It sounds like you have seen vaping happen in and out of school, but it’s not as rampant as the news may make it seem. Is that right?”

F – feedback. This is last step but the place most parents begin, which is why conversations derail so quickly. Using the BRIEF model, you won’t give feedback, advice, or suggestions until the end, after you’ve earned your child’s trust by listening and not until you better understand their point of view and experience.

“I worry about the health side effects of vape and I know it can be a temptation for some people your age. My advice is this: you’ve always been good at taking care of yourself and I hope you’ll keep learning about this if it continues to be something people do around you. I think you’re smart enough to research it and make decisions that future you will thank current you for. I’m always available if you want to talk more about this.” 

You can use this new approach for all kinds of conversations. With practice, you’ll begin doing it naturally and seamlessly. I find that if you start implementing this with easy topics (“Thoughts on whether you’d like to do sleepaway camp again or look for a job next summer?”), your kids will warm up to bigger, meatier conversations (“How are your friends talking about consent after all the news surrounding the latest allegations of sexual harassment against that director?”).

You’ll mount more and more credibility as an easy person to talk with so that by the time your child faces the harder challenges of being an older teen, from broken hearts to social media missteps, you’ll have become a trusted advisor. 

If you’d like to learn more about this approach, my book is available for purchase at major booksellers and indie booksellers and you can learn more about my work at MichelleIcard.com or follow me on these platforms: Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

About Michelle Icard

michelle icardMichelle Icard (pronounced IKE-urd) is a speaker, author, and educator who helps kids, parents, and teachers navigate the complicated social world of early adolescence. Her latest book, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen (Harmony/Random House 2021) guides readers through the fourteen essential conversations parents need to have with their kids before they start high school. Her first book, Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years, is a primer for the social and emotional changes parents and kids navigate when mid-life meets middle school under one roof.

Michelle is a member of the TODAY Show parenting team and NBC News Learn. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Chicago TribuneCNNTime, and People Magazine. Her middle school leadership programs, Athena’s Path & Hero’s Pursuit, have been implemented at schools across the country and she speaks around the globe at schools and parenting events.

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