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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

What Your Teen (Who Won’t Talk to You) Really Needs You to Know

They can be reclusive, combative, secretive, and downright rude, but that doesn't mean your teenager doesn't need you. Here is what the experts say your adolescent is hoping you'll figure out.

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I want you to ask about my day

“Even if the response isn’t robust and enthusiastic, teens still want a parent to be interested in their day,” says Stephanie Hartselle, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University and a member expert with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Because parents can have a hard time knowing how to break the ice—especially if teens have rebuffed their attempts before—Dr. Hartselle offers a few conversation starters. “Continue to make asking about his day part of a routine, and have low expectations for the teen’s response,” she says. “In the car on the way home or at dinner just say, ‘What was the best part of your day?’ or ‘What was the worst part of your day?’ Even if they don’t respond, continue to put that out there so teens know you’re here to talk.” Dr. Hartselle adds a tip on handling whatever conversation might follow: “It helps not to take the responses too personally.” Discover more ways to deal with your moody teen.

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I want you to ask about my friends

“Teens want their parents to be curious about their friends and who they are,” says Dr. Hartselle. In addition, it’s important for moms and dads to realize that it’s natural for those friendships to take center stage. “It’s useful for parents to think back to how important friendships were when they became teenagers, and how their friend relationships took the spotlight away from many of their family relationships,” says Terrill Dennis Bravender Jr, MD, director of the Adolescent Medicine Division at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “That’s a completely normal shift.” (Helping your teen manage her avalanche of emotions is one way to raise an emotionally intelligent child.)

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I actually do respect your opinion

Even if they won’t say so explicitly, teens still value what their parents think, says Dr. Bravender. “The vast majority of teens—even if it doesn’t seem like it—still look up to their parents,” he explains, adding it’s therefore crucial for parents to think about modeling good behavior. “Something as simple as driving the speed limit is really important,” he says.

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I don’t always know why I do things

The human brain continues to develop until the age of 25 or 26, and the last area to be formed is the prefrontal cortex, which handles planning, logic, and reasoning. “This explains a lot about how teens make impulsive decisions and why they really don’t know why they do some things,” says Dr. Hartselle. “Often they’ll look back and say, ‘That was really stupid,’ but at the time they just didn’t have the foresight to think it through.”

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I know everything that goes on in this house

“Most teens will say, ‘I know way more about this family than you think I do,'” says Dr. Bravender, explaining that if Mom and Dad are having difficulties with their marriage or some conflict over boundaries they’re setting as parents, a teen will be able to tell. “There are very few secrets in houses,” he adds. And such knowledge goes beyond picking up on moods and dynamics. “Teens almost always know the combination to the gun safe, where the key to the liquor cabinet is, and they usually know the ATM numbers,” adds Dr. Hartselle. “Parents need to know that open conversations about things going on in the house—from financial problems to marital strife—are important.”

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I want to be understood

What a teen really wants is to feel understood by her parent and not just judged, says Louis J. Kraus, MD, chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center. “When they feel judged they often become oppositional and increasingly deceptive,” he explains. However, the more Mom and Dad can encourage a teenager to express herself without feeling judgment, the more apt that teen might be to talk honestly about what’s going on in her world. What’s the best way to create a judgment-free zone? “A parent needs to offer a child an open stage to express themselves so they don’t automatically feel they’ll be punished for being open,” says Dr. Kraus. “The more parents can do that, the more comfortable the child will feel talking to them.”

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I need limits and boundaries

There’s nothing overtly wrong with wanting to be friends with your teen, but it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of you setting rules, says Dr. Hartselle. “Teens don’t say this, but they really, desperately want limits and boundaries,” she explains, adding that a teen without parent-defined boundaries is similar to an adult starting a new job without any idea of what the parameters or expectations are, which would cause significant anxiety. “If a teen doesn’t know where the boundaries are, they act out until they find them.” So how does a parent get started? “Setting limits around safety—such as avoiding drugs and alcohol—is one of the easiest ones for parents to handle,” Dr. Hartselle explains. She also points out that establishing household rules doesn’t have to be a negative experience. “Often we think of boundaries and limitations in terms of punishing, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” she suggests. “Giving kids more responsibility could also mean giving them more privileges, such as more social media time, or choosing a restaurant for family dinner.”

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I want you to support my dreams

It is crucial for parents to help adolescents envision their goals and investigate their passions, according to a 2015 study of adolescents and their parents by a Harvard School of Graduate Education professor. The study found that three key parenting practices—autonomy support (providing opportunities for independence), monitoring (knowing where children are and what they’re up to), and warmth (a supportive relationship)—relate to the child’s development in adolescence and early adulthood. Among the study’s findings: “Parents remain a significant influence through adolescence and early adulthood by promoting aspirations, helping their kids find meaning and purpose in their schoolwork, and showing them how their current endeavors fit their longer-term goals and identities,” says a Harvard School of Graduate Education newsletter of the research.

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I need to do things myself—even if that means failing

It’s understandable that a parent would want to protect their teens from failure, but not letting them flop means not letting them develop the skills to bounce back. “Our work as parents is to put ourselves out of a job,” says Dr. Hartselle, who frequently sees parents calling high school teachers or testing boards trying to deal with their children’s problems for them. “Teens need to be able to fail, and they need their parents’ support in recovering but not for parents to do it for them. We’re really propping up kids to be able to succeed on their own.”

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I’m dealing with things you didn’t as a teenager

There’s a definite generation gap between the way today’s parents used to socialize when they were teenagers, and the ways today’s teens socialize with each other. “None of us parents came up in this digital age where things are changing so quickly,” says Dr. Hartselle. “Many of the feelings today’s teens have are the same as we had when we were young, but they’re also dealing with social media pressures we couldn’t have even comprehended back then.” Dr. Bravender agrees, saying there’s a social expectation for adolescents to stay connected through platforms such as Snapchat. “I’d never dealt with that sort of thing when I was young, but that’s the culture in which our kids live these days.” Discover these apps for keeping your kids safe.

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Sometimes I really need your help

There are certain changes in a teen’s behavior that should sound alarm bells, including an abrupt withdrawal from family, neglecting homework, a sudden drop in grades, changing an entire group of friends, dropping activities, and spending excessive time in their room. If you’re noticing these signs, waste no time in talking to your teen about how things are going. “Parents can say things like, ‘I’ve heard of kids being bullied more at school—what do you know about that or has that happened to any of your friends?'” Dr. Hartselle suggests as a conversation starter. “As they start talking you could work in asking if that ever happened to your child, or what does your child think their friends’ parents could have done for them.” If you suspect your teen might be having a serious problem, she adds, your pediatrician’s office can be a helpful resource. “If your teen ever talks about anything that alarms you, your pediatrician can help connect you, if needed, with mental health providers.”

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I want you to be honest

Teens can often smell your uncertainty, so it’s OK to be up front with them when you don’t have all the answers. “I think it’s important to be honest so teens don’t think parents make arbitrary decisions,” says Dr. Bravender. “If a high school senior, for example, asks ‘Can I go to Florida for spring break with my buddy?’ some families will say OK and some won’t. But if you don’t know, it’s entirely reasonable to say ‘I’m not sure right now, I need to think about that, let’s talk about it, and come to a decision.'” Learn how to avoid losing your kid’s trust.