My teenagers don’t talk to each other

Q: I am a mother of three teenage children – a girl of 14 and two boys age 16 and 19. The problem is there is no communication between them. It is not that there are rows between them, just not much communication. It seems as if they are living their separate lives without talking to one another.

This has been going on for a long time – maybe four years or more – and it went unnoticed for quite a while. I can’t identify a particular starting point or cause of the problem. The last time I remember things being better was when the eldest started secondary school nearly seven years ago. He would be chatting to his brother about school and I used to have to check on them to stop them talking to get to sleep. Now I wish I could have that back as there just isn’t any talk unless I tell one of them to go tell the other dinner is ready, or whatever, and that’s it. Now and then I do ask them to make an effort to talk and they say they will, but nothing has changed.

I should say that when I was growing up communication was poor in my family, but my brothers and sisters get on very well today. I wonder at times is this where the problem might come from though my brother and sister don’t have the same problem with their kids now. I feel it’s very unhealthy and I worry how much longer this situation will continue. I feel my children are missing out and, at times, I become stressed about this issue.

A: During adolescence, lots of teenagers become private and begin to disconnect from their family – this is part of the process of growing up. For some, this extends to siblings and it is common for teenagers to pull away from their brothers and sisters for a period and for their friends and peer group to become more important in their lives. Just as it is normal for parents to get upset at their teenager pulling away from them, it is also normal to be worried at their changing relationship with brothers and sisters.

Lots of parents have an expectation of their children being close and having good relationships when they grow up and can be disappointed if this is not the case. If close sibling bonds endure into adulthood, parents feel reassured that their children will be happier and looked out for as adults.

It could be that your children’s current lack of communication is simply a feature of being teenagers and it is not necessarily an indication that they won’t be close as adults. Indeed, you describe how in your own family situation, you were not close to your siblings growing up, yet how now you communicate well with them as adults.

It is worth reflecting as to how and when your relationships with your siblings improved. Were there specific events that happened that brought you closer or was it that you all simply grew up and learned to talk more? This might give you some clues as to how your own children’s relationships might change and what you can do to facilitate them.

How you can help your children communicate better depends on a variety of things. For example, do they actively avoid each other or do they simply not currently share any interests or activities? Do they talk more in different contexts such as when out of the house or doing something they enjoy? Depending on the answers to these questions, perhaps you could help them communicate more by setting a routine in the house around shared meals or family events or you could build upon any shared interests they have (eg paying for two of them to go to a football match together if it interests them both). Alternatively, could you encourage them to undertake some tasks together (maybe a joint household project such as painting a room that you might reward them for on completion).

Depending on the situation, you could also look for opportunities to set up one sibling in a helping role with another – maybe the eldest might be in a position to help the youngest with homework and this could work if both were open and it fitted with their personalities.

I’m also interested to know how you and their father get on with them individually. How close are your relationships with each of them? This is certainly something to work on by setting aside one-to-one time to chat and listen to each of them, and setting up shared interests and tasks together.

Aside from this being good for you both independently, it is during these one-to-ones that they might discuss their relationship with their brother or sister and, if your relationship is close, you are then best placed to support and positively influence them. Certainly, the best time to help them is when one of them raises the issue directly with you. They might not do this now, but might do it at a later point in the future when you could be ready to respond.

However, it could also be that the best approach is to take a step back and to wait for them to sort out their own relationships themselves. Certainly, putting them under any pressure might be counterproductive and you might be best taking a long-term view and waiting for things to improve naturally as they did in your own family.

In summary, focus on building your own individual relationship with each of them, and then look for subtle or indirect opportunities to encourage them to talk with one another, but ideally wait for one of them to raise the issue with you as this is when they are most likely to listen and take on board your suggestions.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.