By Dr. Michele Borba
Parenting advice to open up communication, rebuild a relationship with your teen or know what to do when your son or daughter starts to pull away and give you the cold shoulder.
Let’s face it: teens really are a different species –and for a variety of reasons. Raging hormones, stress, sleep deprivation, growth spurts, self-consciousness and neurological wiring are just a few factors that make teens super sensitive, moody and irritable. So let’s have a little empathy—they are stuck in the middle of childhood. They are still bit dependent but have that surge to be independent. In fact, more physical changes are happening to their bodies than at any other developmental period. Research confirms that their brains are actually wired differently so we should expect them to be a bit “difficult” and a unique species.
If you’ve been getting the cold shoulder lately, here are four steps to help you thaw things out a bit – or discover if that attitude could be something more. Your task is to decide if you need to go through all four steps in sequence or skip ahead until you find the step that describes your issue with your teen.
Step 1: Rule Out Likely Culprits
Your first step is to look beyond your teen’s cold shoulder and rule out culprits that are not due to a poor relationship.
Hint: First step is to check your own attitude. Use the “Friend Test” Would you talk to your friend the way you talk to your child?
Here are a few top “cold shoulder causes”–so tune up ones you can. Doing so may make a major difference in your relationship with your child. (Hint: First step is to check your own attitude. Use the “Friend Test” Would you talk to your friend the way you talk to your child?)
Stress: School, schedules, tests worrying about future, college acceptances. sleep deprived
A bad habit you’ve allowed to continue. This “cold shoulder” attitude has been going on for quite sometime. The real problem is a lack of respect and you engaging with a disrespectful teens
Hormonal changes, a growth spurt and adolescence
Peer pressure and the social scene: Girlfriends/boyfriends, fitting in, peer pressure
Substance abuse: Don’t overlook drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs
Other: What’s your best guess as to what’s really going on with your teen?
Step 2: Avoid Communication Blockers
Here are a few communication blockers that are almost guaranteed to tune teens out-and off-that you should avoid:
Talking too much or lecturing. Say as little as possible so your teen can say as much as possible (even if it’s 15 seconds). Instead, wait. Stay a little longer. Allow your teen time to think and process.
Sarcasm, put downs, and judgments. Teens are hypersensitive! Watch your body language. A smirk, tsk-tsk, rolling eyes, or frown shut down a teen, and pronto.
Multi-tasking. Teens hate that we multi-task because even though we are listening they don’t think we’re focusing on them. When your teen says anything, stop and focus on him.
Intense eye contact. If your teen is super-sensitive, try talking side-by-side instead of front to front. Take advantage of talking while driving, watching television, or playing video games—all use side-by-side talking and are more comfortable for teens.
Irritable voice tone. Interactions with teens are often like walking through a minefield. A teen’s irritability can quickly turn into a yell and spiral to the parent. Keep your voice tone calm and lowered. Give permission to walk away if things get too tense.
Too rushed. Don’t be rushed when you’re with a teen. Build in more time to your talks. Just in case the teen does open his mouth, you don’t want to be rushed. Add time if you want to discuss something important. Irritability can cause tension – and you need time to defuse it.
Step 3. Use Relationship Rebuilders
Your next step is to find new ways to respond to your teen that will not only thaw his should but rebuild your relationship. Here are a few that teens tell me they appreciate. The key is to find what works with your teen. Use an attitude of “patient persistence” (translation: “Don’t give up!”)
Learn 2 Txt! Many teens say they will respond more to their parents if they text and actually prefer texting – so get in your teen’s world. Learn to text!
Use the 80% Positive – 20% Negative Rule: Use the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it” (or bite your tongue) policy. The ideal to strive for is least 80% positive and 20% negative. So slowly stretch your time together without a cold shoulder or blow up. Better to be short and positive to thaw out a relationship.
Say “I’m Sorry” Apologize when you are wrong and sincerely convey that you hope you never have “another last night.” Those two words are a lot more powerful to a teen than you realize.
Give Kudos: Find anything your teen is doing that deserves recognition. (It’s a great way to rebuild that relationship!)
Hope for the Truth: Find some truth in what your teen is saying–even if it seems unreasonable. You don’t have to agree with what he says. But strive to find one part where he’s right. “Can’t say I agree, but you sure are learning some great debating principles.”
His Time + Your Time = The Right Time. Find anytime and anyway to connect. Identify the time your teen is most receptive, then use that as the optimal time to approach your teen. Hint: Most teens are sleep deprived and actually on a different time zone than adults.
One University of Minnesota study found that over half of teens studied reported feeling most awake after 3:00 pm. So adjust! They are generally most receptive–and more reflective–to talking to parents later in the evening–the exact opposite time of adults. If you want to connect, then plan to hang out later to catch your teen.
Write Notes: If you can’t get anywhere verbally then write notes. One mom and son used a journal to write comments back and forth (which helped reduce conflict and rebuild the relationship).
Step 4. Know When to Get Help
There are times when you’ve tried it all, but still no change. So when does a parent know its time to get professional help? Here are my three rules:
Use the TOO INDEX: Is the problem going on too long, with too many other people and spilling into too many other areas of your teen’s life (not just at home but at school and with his friends). Too severe or too prolonged and always use your instinct. No one knows your teen better than yourself.
Use the Three-Week Rule. If things don’t improve despite your best efforts by three weeks or if things increase in intensity before three weeks and last every day for two weeks, then don’t wait. Get help!
Use your gut instinct. Come on! NOBODY knows your teen better than you. If you have that feeling deep down that something is wrong, then just pick up the phone and get help! Please!
When All Else Fails
Then one day the dad was late to work because he couldn’t find his belt. He remembered his son had borrowed it so he went into the teen’s room searching. He looked everywhere and had no luck. The last place he looked was under the son’s bed and it was there he found a cigar box. Prepared for the worse (i.e. drugs), the dad opened it and was shocked. Every note he’d written his son was there in that box. The dad later learned from his son that he’d been the cause of the split between his dad and mom. Once he finally opened up, the dad understood the reason for his son’s cold shoulder. All he had to do to thaw it, was tell him that he had nothing to do with the divorce – that was between he and his wife. As the dad told me, “I’m so glad I wrote those notes. You just never know with kids. So don’t give up!”
I couldn’t agree more.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.