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Getting your teen to talk about his or her feelings

Many 21st-century parents are very conscious of the importance of keeping the lines of communication open with their teens. This often comes at the expense of old-fashioned discipline and parent-child hierarchy, but for many parents the trade-off is worth it. In exchange for that old-fashioned stuff, you get a strong emotional connection with your child that is almost like a friendship, and you are rarely kept in the dark about important things.

Still, even in this day of unprecedented openness between parents and children, some teens are not willing to go along with it. And those who do go along with it often still go through phases in which they distance themselves from their parents. Under normal circumstances, this distance can frustrate parents, but it is ultimately expected and usually manageable. But when you suspect that your child is having serious issues or is suffering in secret, this distance can become a problem.

There are a few very serious reasons why a formerly open child might close herself off from her parents, including the following:

•    depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder
•    drug use or other illicit behaviors
•    eating disorders
•    trouble with a boyfriend or girlfriend
•    too much school-related stress

Of course, these are not the only reasons why a child may shut down the lines of communication with parents, and some are not so serious. For example, perhaps your teen is just going through a perfectly natural rebellious phase. Or maybe he or she has a new boyfriend or girlfriend and is temporarily shutting everything else out. Whatever the case may be, do not automatically assume the worst. Try to figure out the situation before taking action.

Getting your teen to talk
The first thing to keep in mind is that your teen probably does not want to be treated like a child. He or she is well aware that you have watched them grow up and that they have very few secrets from you, so if you want your child to open up, let her make a clean break from childhood. Do not bring up old issues, and be open to the possibility that your teen is an autonomous individual with thoughts, feelings, and abilities that may surprise you.

But simply adopting this open-minded approach does not guarantee you open communication with your child. You might have to work on them over time and gradually teach them that you are willing to talk openly without judgment and without treating them as a child. You might be required to make many failed attempts at heart-to-heart talks before a decent one ever occurs.

Do not be discouraged. But if your attempts do not seem to be working, make sure you are not doing any of these things:

•    Using what your child says against him or her, either right away or later on
•    Interrupting your teen when he or she is talking
•    Using the talk as an opportunity to preach
•    Bringing up things from the past, which sends the message that you do not believe they can grow or change
•    Trying to stop your child from experiencing things and making mistakes of his or her own

Alternatives
If you feel you have done everything right and your child still will not open up to you, then it could be that he or she is in a non-talking phase and will not budge. In this case, you can try to send in a proxy—for example, your significant other, an older sibling, or a close friend of the family. Of course, this should not be an attempt at espionage, as it needs to be private between your teen and the person he or she talks to. But after the talk, you can at least ask your proxy whether there are serious issues, even if you cannot learn the details.

If that does not work, it might be time to exert some parental authority. If you feel that something is seriously wrong with your child, make him or her go to a child therapist or a guidance counselor. Many children very willingly open up to their therapists, especially once told that the conversation will be confidential. And though you will not be able to listen in on the conversation, your child may soon learn to open up as the therapy begins to have an effect.

By Marc Courtiol

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