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What teenagers don’t tell their parents and why:

Author Michelle Mitchell shares her insights and recommendations to connect with your teenager
By Michelle Mitchell
Date: February 01 2012
Editor Rating:

It’s a ‘coming of age’ experience that everyone must have!  I’m not talking about holding the keys to your first car or buying a house.  I’m talking about the moment when you, as a grown adult, tell your parents what you got up to as a teenager!  

These tell-all moments usually take place during family get togethers where confessions are egged on by the rest of the family’s roars of laughter.  Sentences that start with ‘remember when’ typically escalate into competitive story telling sessions, with family members trying to trump each others childhood stupidity.

Whether you are owning up to wagging school or smoking a cigarette, there is something liberating about being able to joke about the things you would have once been punished for.  It’s a kind of ‘ha-ha you can’t catch me now’ moment that we all need to experience as a true right of passage into adulthood. 

It is only when you graduate to parenthood yourself that teenage behaviour becomes more of a serious matter.  Grandparents are now the ones who stand back and do the laughing, watching their grandchildren give their parents just as hard a time as their children gave them.  The compliment ‘she’s just like you’ now takes on an entirely different meaning!

Parents often tell me that having a teenager is like reliving their own childhood, accept this time they are in the driver’s seat.  It is not uncommon for parents to have flashbacks of their own mother, standing exactly the same way they do, saying exactly the same thing they say to their teenager.  They find themselves with hands on hips yelling, “If you can’t say anything nice to your brother don’t say anything at all!”

The reality is that we repeat the same advice that our mother’s gave us because our children resemble us —or even, at times, a double dose of us! And although parents may hope that their teenagers don’t follow in their footsteps, they can’t bypass the fact that the chemical make up of a teenager’s brain doesn’t change from generation to generation. 

The parts of the brain responsible for emotional maturity, impulse-control, judgement, decision-making and organisation are not likely to be fully developed until some time after a teenager’s 21st birthday.  That means that there is a physical reason why teenagers are highly emotional, unable to assess risk and believe they know better than every adult alive. 

Many of us can remember keeping a secret diary, putting a lock on our bedroom door, or hanging out a ”DO NOT ENTER” sign for everyone to clearly see.  This increased need for privacy and independence is recognised by most parents as a normal part of growing up.  However, when a teenager’s need for privacy jeopardises their potential and safety, parents understandably start to worry. 

Those of us who admit to being a ‘rat bag’ may remember times when we dodged danger by a razor’s edge. Others of us may recall times when we blatantly put ourselves in harm’s way, just for the fun of it! These recollections remind parents that teenagers can inflict quite a lot of damage before common sense catches up with them.  Parents also understand that their children don’t have to be bad kids to be into serious trouble, they just have to be at the wrong place and the wrong time. 

There is something about blowing out thirteen candles that changes a parent’s relationship with their child.  Although teenagers may still love their parents, they may no longer wish to involve them in the decisions they are making.  Some teenagers would argue that no matter how great their relationship was with their parents, they wouldn’t talk to them about personal issues, like what happens at school.  Parents are faced with the seeming impossible task of staying connected to their teenager while they are deliberately pulling away.  

Many parents strive to have a ‘good’ relationship with their teenager in the hope that they will choose to turn to them during critical decision making times. Yet, according to research,parents need to recognise that having a ‘good’ relationship with your child doesn’t automatically mean that your teenager will talk to you about their life choices.

Psychologist Diann Ackard reports that the majority of girls and boys value their parents’ opinion when making serious decisions and believe that their parents care about them. Yet, a quarter of those girls and boys felt unable to talk to their mother about problems, and over half of girls and one third of boys felt unable to talk to their father. 

This statistic in no way surprises me.

Over the past 12 years I have spent a great deal of time in high schools.  What I have seen is that all teenagers experience key moments where they ‘make up their mind’ about issues such as sex, alcohol, drugs, pornography and bullying. Most make these decisions alone, without the contribution of an adult figure, and with an overpowering influence from a media that glamorises poor choices and disconnects actions from their consequences. 

I have also noticed that teenagers who make good choices quite often have hidden support that they don’t tell their friends about.  They have a strong network of adults who they secretly turn to when they are faced with significant decisions.  These adult networks might include extended family and friends, but are driven by parents who are dedicated to ensuring they keep open communication with their children.

It is my opinion that every loving parent deserves a ‘heads up’ on how to communicate with their teenagers about sensitive subjects and stay connected with them, especially during key decision making times. They deserve to understand how to convert a ‘good’ relationship into an ‘honest and transparent’ relationship. 

The greatest advice I can give parents is to recognise that they are not talking to mini-adults, they are talking to teenagers.  There is far greater difference between the two than most parents realise.  The below suggestions are designed to help parents adjust their communication so it relates to and accommodates the uniqueness of their teenagers age.

Connecting with Your Teenager

Suggestion One - Allow them to control communication 

Teenagers have a very strong desire to be in control of their own lives.  When it comes to communication all teenagers want to feel like they are in control of what they do and don’t talk to their parents about.  If a parent takes total control of the communication process, teenagers will be more likely to pull away.  Smart parents give teenagers the opportunity to decide when, where and what they talk to them about.  They seize every opportunity their teenagers give them to talk about serious issues.

Practical Parent Tip 1: 

Open the door to communication by saying, “I am here if you want to talk about this.  I’d like to hear what you are thinking when you are ready”, and then do nothing but wait.  You can’t make a teenager talk but you can communicate that you are willing to.  The more you directly invite them to talk, the more likely they will take you up on your offer. Don’t force communication by meeting teenagers with one hundred questions after school each afternoon.

Suggestion Two - Learn to listen for their benefit

I once heard someone say that the purpose of listening is to allow the person talking to hear what they are really thinking.  Listening isn’t about investigating a teenager or finding out information.  Listening is yet another act of love, especially when it starts at 10pm just as you would like to go to bed!   I encourage parents to refrain from spending hours talking about their own experiences or giving their opinion.  Parents should focus on listening rather than talking and remind themselves that listening is not a waste of their time.

Practical Parent Tip 2: 

Ask your teenager to tell you how well you listen.  You may be surprised how things look from their perspective.  Instead of asking your teenager for more information, encourage communication by asking how they feel.  Learn to de-personalise sensitive conversations by asking questions like, “Do many teenagers get pressured into having sex?” instead of “Are you being pressured into having sex?”  It is often easier for teenagers to talk about others choices rather than their own.

Suggestion Three- Respect their Privacy

Every teenager has areas that are no go zones.  Respecting a teenager’s privacy won’t stop you from effectively parenting your teenager.  You don’t have to know everything about your teenager’s life to know how to parent them.  Be content to not hear the details you would like to.  Be careful you don’t ask too many pointed questions if you know they don’t want to answer them. Trying to pry open a shut door will only lead to arguments. 

Practical Parent Tip 3: 

Don’t push sensitive subjects. Try to keep disagreements to a minimum and keep the atmosphere as relaxed as possible while communicating about serious issues.  Choose your environment carefully.  Sometimes walking and talking is more effective than sitting in a room.  A teenager should enjoy communicating with their parents.

Suggestion Four- Be attentive to what they don’t say

Pay careful attention to what your teenager doesn’t tell you. Remember it is what teenagers don’t say rather than what they do say that matters the most. Watch your teenager’s body language and lifestyle choices.  These things will tell you just as much, if not more, than their verbal communication.  Remember too that your job is to keep your teenager safe, rather than be their best friend.  Open dialogue should not come at the expense of appropriate management of a teenager. 

Practical Parent Tip 4:

Maintain your authority as a role model and parental figure rather than being your teenager’s friend.  Trust your intuition as a parent.  Remember that you know your child better than anyone else, and often better than they know themselves at that age.  Always consider what your teenager tells you to be a portion of the whole story and expect to be lied to once in a while.

Suggestion Five- Leave your own emotions out of it

Because teenagers prefer to think they can handle their life without parental intervention, they dislike it when their parents are excessively worried or become overly involved. Parents should make sure they process your own feelings away from their teenager so they are not excessively emotional.  Parents shouldn’t feel responsible to fix their teenager’s problems just because they shared them.  Instead parents should find a way to support their teenager without taking over. 

Practical Parent Tip 5: 

Ask your teenager, “Is there anything I can do to help?” so your response is relevant and meaningful.  Allow your teenager to direct how much you worry and are involved in helping them solve their problems, unless they are facing very serious issues that warrant your full control.  Don’t feel pressured to fix a teenager’s problems or offer them advice unless they ask for it.  Always have another adult to talk to about your own feelings and needs.

Michelle Mitchell(B. Teach)

Author of What Teenage Girls Don’t Tell their Parents

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