How to talk to a teenager who doesn’t want to talk

When her 14-year-old daughter closes herself up like a fan and writes dark poetry in her diary, Paula Dawidowicz of Blacksburg, Va., gently pulls her into a conversation.

Parents like Dawidowicz often wonder which is worse: the silent treatment or the grunts and snarls that seem to be more appropriate forms of communication among wild animals than they do among teens in a gentrified society.

“What I started to do was ask her if I could hear one of her poems,” Dawidowicz says. “Her poem was dark and really sad. She felt really isolated and separate. I accepted her where she was, and I started talking to her about some of the poetry I had written and the reasons why I was so glad she had come to be my child.”

As a single mother of three teenagers and a personal coach and director for the Center for Successful Communities, Dawidowicz has learned to communicate meaningfully with her children.

Her oldest son, David, 20, has a triple major in psychics, math and astronomy at the University of Massachusetts where he is a junior.

When he was living at home, David did not always want to open up or converse in a polite manner, and his mother remembers the power struggles.

“He was crossing what I considered moral barriers in my house,” Dawidowicz says. “He immediately got defensive when I tried to discuss it with him.

I said, ‘We need to talk about this,’ and he would get angry – very abrupt, did not want to talk about it, did not want to see my side of it at all.

What I found was, sometimes the language would get really out of line, not just, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ but vicious words, very attacking to me and basically putting me in a position where I could easily take personal offense.”

During those heated moments, Dawidowicz tried to remember he was the teenager and she was the adult.

“As much as I loved him, he did not know as much as I did,” she says. “We did work it out. I ended up sitting down with him and having a conversation, and we drew up a contract. He knew what I expected. I knew what he expected.”

Choosing Battles

To lighten tense situations, Dawidowicz uses humor. She relays stories about the silly things she did as a teenager and keeps a perspective. She also lets her teens in on the fact that she is a real person with feelings and desires.

Besides humor, another key is timing – it’s essential when it comes to having serious conversations with teens. If the conversation topic will not cause too much anticipation anxiety, set a time to talk about it.

“One of the things I found is that often if I tried to push something too much, it became impossible,” she says. “He shut down. Boys especially, but all teenagers today like to feel like they are in control.”

Forcing a child to talk on command might just build a greater wall, because the message he or she hears is that the parent’s will is more important.

Dawidowicz found that if she gave space and “picked her battles” when the kids weren’t ready to talk, they eventually responded better.

Job Perspective

Another way to get through to teenagers about the importance of proper communication skills is by helping them make the connection between communication and marketability in the work place.

Chad Foster, 45, of Atlanta, Ga., a motivational speaker and author of Teenagers Preparing for the Real World (Rising Books, Inc., 1999), created a curriculum for teens that focuses on communication skills, questioning skills, listening skills, networking skills, public speaking skills, reading and writing skills.

Foster explains to teenagers that until they have good communication skills, they really limit themselves in their opportunities both at home and in the workplace.

“The biggest challenge we face today is skills like communication, listening and people skills, those were all skills that were learned at home years and years ago, and in many cases, they are not learned at home anymore,” he says.

“Then these kids are getting out into the workplace, and they don’t have these skills. What employers are telling us across the board is these are the skills young people lack in order to be successful in the world of work.”

Foster, who is also a television host for ESPN and the father of 1-year-old Graham, says teenagers do not learn rude communication behavior overnight.

“They did not wake up one day and decide to be inconsiderate, rude, apathetic kids,” he says. “That’s something they learned over time. I think it’s also important to know who your kids are hanging out with. If seven out of eight of their friends all talk that way to their parents and treat adults that way, they are more likely to follow suit and be of that persuasion.”

Talk to Strangers

Foster speaks to more than 80,000 teenagers each year. When he does, he is quick to point out they are going to need several skills in their “tool box” to be successful.

“One of them is communication skills, the ability to walk up and talk to almost anyone, anywhere,” he says.

“What we teach in our workshops is how to talk to strangers. Forever they are told, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ and then they get thrown out into the real world of either high school – dealing with coaches and adults, media specialists, principals – or into the work world, and they don’t know how to talk to people they don’t know.”

Foster starts with the basics: the art of conversation. To have a conversation with an adult, it’s not necessary to have 25 questions lined up, he says.

“You just ask simple questions and listen to the answer you get from the question you ask to come up with your next question,” he says.

“Then … basically stay on three subjects: jobs, families and hobbies, because if you can stay on those subjects and ask simple questions and just base your next question on the answer you got from your last question, you can talk to anyone forever.”

Communication is a skill. It can be learned, and it only improves when it is practiced, Foster says.

“Many times, the most important communication skills between young people and adults are not learned between the young person and their parent but between a young person and another adult outside the home,” he says.

Talk During Activities

Oftentimes teenagers will talk more when they are involved in a sport or activity. Turn off the television and video games and take children outside, Foster says.

“I have a teenager who works for us, and he goes every weekend with his father,” Foster says. “They sit in a deer blind, and they have more communication taking place in that deer blind and on the hour-and-a-half drive down to that land than they ever do any other time in their lives.”

Rae Simpson of Cambridge, Mass., the author of a report, Raising Teens, published at Harvard, says parents might want to try talking to their teenager while driving in a car.

And Simpson should know, as she has lots of experience. She is the program director for parenting education and research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and the chief consultant to the Harvard Parenting Project at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Most importantly, she has two teenage boys and a teenage daughter.

While everyone has a bad day, don’t tolerate rude behavior on a regular basis, Simpson says. “There is nothing in the research that suggests parents should tolerate behavior that is seriously against their principles or is disrespectful of parents,” she says.

“The research is very clear that it’s important to set limits with teenagers, including around their behavior with parents. So it’s a fine line essentially.

It’s important to understand they are going to be, as we all are, cranky at times. It’s also important to set expectations that they will nonetheless be respectful and handle their interactions in an appropriate way.”

Simpson says parents need to recognize their teenagers are going through developmental changes that affect their communication with parents.

Realize it is not personal. “It’s possible to say, for example, ‘I’d rather not talk about this right now. It’s not a good time,’ instead of snarling and saying something rude,” she says.

In conclusion, it’s never too late to learn good communication skills.

Parents may engage their children in conversation at the dinner table as well as during activities.

Also, keep them involved in activities where they may converse with other adults to keep their social skills fine-tuned.

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