Reality talk for resistant teens
By Randy Cale, PH.D
Let me begin by emphasizing that this article is not about every adolescent. However, for some of you, you have become quite familiar with the teen I am about to describe. Let’s imagine you asked the question, “How was your day?”
It seems innocent enough. It seems that you are concerned. There was no tone in your voice. There is nothing that you are angry about. Your adolescent appears to be sitting at the table doing nothing. All appears okay.
Yet the response that you get sounds something like this:
• “None of your business!”
• “Leave me alone!”
• “Why do you keep bothering me?”
• “What’s wrong with you?”
• “Don’t bother me!”
• “Why are you always asking me questions?”
• And so forth….
Of course, with this adolescent, you have probably been through this several hundred times, maybe more.
It doesn’t matter the time of day. It doesn’t matter what question you ask. It doesn’t matter how you ask it. The more concerned and worried we become about their guarded or resistant responses, the more we tend to press and the uglier things seem to get.
The only exception might be in the event that your son or daughter actually WANTS something from you. The response then sounds more like a human being. In fact, they can be “sweet as pie” as long as they are getting what they want. If this is your child, you may have a case of what I call, “The Adolescent Third Degree Burn!”
What is the Adolescent Third Degree Burn?
While not every teenager goes through this phase, many certainly do. This is a stage of life where every question, inquiry or request is taken as an imposition. It’s as if you are probing into their personal world with a dagger in your hand.
To understand this metaphor, imagine their self-esteem has been burned and the boundaries are hypersensitive to any effort to find out, “What’s going on in there?” The more you try to get inside, the more reactive they become.
If you are dealing with this, you are probably aware that most of what you read says that you should just keep asking. This is wrong. Why? Because it doesn’t work for resistant kids!
Does your teen seem to appreciate your repeated worry, concern and efforts to connect? Do they ever open up to your questioning and probing? No! Notice it just keeps pushing your son or daughter further and further away.
Now, this doesn’t mean you give up communicating; it just means that you approach “touching” a child who has been “burned” very differently than you might approach others.
What’s the advantage of this metaphor?
First, it prepares you for the reality of trying to communicate with a teen who has landed in this place. Be prepared for the hypersensitivity and don’t take it personally. Just hold the awareness that if you probe, it will get ugly.
Secondly, it implies that there will be great sensitivity to touch or pressure. It’s not that you can’t communicate; it’s just that there can’t be an effort to move inside this psychological sphere of energy, which is hypersensitive.
Third, all burns eventually heal if you stop probing and picking at them. Thus, the metaphor implies that this is not a lifelong condition.
Finally, when you cease efforts to probe into your teenager’s world, you’ll find more opportunities for dialogue and discussion. How? Rather than inquiry, we focus on meeting them where they are at.
You’re probably wondering how to do that. First, rather than probing about their day, comment on it. Simply state, “It was a beautiful day outside.” Don’t get hooked by their response. If it’s positive, keep going. If not, ignore it.
Secondly, don’t ask questions that you already know or can get the answer to. Instead of asking who won the game, do a little research and then say: “I heard you guys won by five points. Nice job.”
Third, rather than asking about the results of their math quiz, say: “I noticed how hard you studied for your math quiz last night. I am sure you did your best.”
Finally, try to resonate at their level of emotional investment. By meeting them where they are at, you actually show respect for their struggle. While it seems counter-intuitive, I encourage you to simply notice the results. You don’t have to wait weeks or months to see the effect of this strategy.
“But won’t they think that I don’t care?”
No, this is not the case. The probing approach (with resistant teens) just pushes them away. You invest more and more energy in the resistant, ugly comments and in return you just keep receiving more ugly comments.
With this approach, you stop investing in those ugly moments and you stop being the only one always investing in the relationship. By doing this, you give your teenager the chance to begin investing in your family. Just notice what happens when you try! And remember, it doesn’t happen overnight! Burns take a while to heal…just be patient for a few weeks.
Dr. Randy Cale, a Clifton Park based parenting expert, author, speaker and licensed psychologist, offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. Dr. Cale’s new website, www.TerrificParenting.com offers valuable free parenting information and an e-mail newsletter.