QUESTION: My 15-year-old daughter hasn’t said anything more than “Yeah” or “No” to me for more than a year. I know that all teenagers go through a moody period but I’m worried that this is going on too long. I don’t know anything about what is going on in her life and the person she’s becoming. I’d like to have a close relationship with her, as I was close to my own mother and we always chatted even when I was a teenager.
My daughter seems to be doing fine in school and has a good group of friends, though she does not tell me much about what is going onwith her. Every time I try to make an effort with my daughter she snaps at me and can often be hurtful in what she says. She talks to me only when she wants something from me, such as money or a lift, so I often feel used by her.
What you describe is a very common experience for a parent of a teenager. As part of the journey to independence, teenagers have to pull away from their parents and work out their own identity.
Though it is not the case for every teenager, frequently teenagers go through a period of rejecting their parents and becoming more private, while their friends and peers become central to their lives.
This can be very hurtful for parents, particularly those who have enjoyed a previously close relationship with their children and especially, as in your situation, if their own adolescence was marked by a closer relationship with parents.
The good news is that, for the most part, this period is temporary. Most of the parents I work with describe going through a very difficult year of rejection or rebellion from their teenagers before things settle.
It is important to remember that, despite their moods and rebellion, teenagers still need their parents to stay connected and involved in their lives. Therefore, you are right to be concerned and to want to reach out to your daughter.
However, in dealing with a teenager you might need to adjust your approach. The old ways you spoke to her as a younger child may not work any more.
Build up small talk at the times she is most open
One of my first questions when working with parents of teenagers is to ask them, “When in the day is your teen most likely to chat with you?” I am not looking for deep conversations but rather simple, small talk and chat.
Even during the difficult times with their teens, parents are usually able to identify simple routine times such as watching the football or a favourite TV soap together, sharing mealtimes, when out for a walk or going somewhere in the car, and so on.
The key is to identify these more open times and to try to increase their frequency. For example, you can make a decision to be more around when your daughter comes in if this is the time she is likely to talk more.
In addition, make a decision to be really present and attentive during these times and if she gives you any news, make sure you really listen to her and encourage her to talk more.
These times are the opportunities to increase the conversation between the two of you and to build your relationship.
Continue to reach out to your daughter
Even though she might have responded only minimally recently, continue to reach out and ask your daughter questions, particularly picking times when she is most open.
Rather than asking general questions, it can help if you ask specific questions about things that she is interested in. For example, rather than asking “How is school going?” which is general and may be something she is not interested in, you could ask, “How did the basketball match go? I know you were really looking forward to it,” to which she is much more likely to respond.
Respond warmly to her requests to you
In your question you talk about how your daughter “only talks to you” when she wants something from you. Rather than being hurt by these requests, see these as opportunities to increase communication between the two of you.
Try not to respond negatively to her and instead inquire warmly for more information – “What do you want the money for?” “Which friend do you want to visit?” “How is the friend getting on these days?”
Where possible, try to agree to the request she makes and try to extend it slightly. For example, if she asks for money, explore what she wants it for and then ways she can earn some of it, perhaps by doing chores at home.
If this works well, you can encourage her to do chores that involve communication between the two of you, such as preparing dinner and so on.
The key in this principle is always to respond warmly whenever she starts to communicate with you. This is the quickest way to improve a relationship.
Insist on rule of respect
As well as reaching out and responding more when she talks, it is also important to insist on important rules with your daughter. For example, if she is being rude to you, it is important to address this in a warm but firm way – “Come on, we all have to be polite in this house,”or “I can give you the lift only if you ask politely.”
Insisting on politeness will help you feel less resentful and hurt, and will teach her respect.
Consider other rules you might have that encourage communication such as setting up family chores and activities, or having a family meal or evening once a week. Though easier to set up when children are younger, teenagers can be encouraged to participate in these important family routines.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.