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. 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 what the time of day is. 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 more ugly things seem to get.
The only exception might be if your son or daughter WANTS something from you, and then you get a response that sounds more like a human being. 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, certainly many 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 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….and keep asking…and 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, the metaphor of a third-degree burn implies that there would 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 that is hypersensitive.
You can communicate with your teen. You just can’t probe…you just can’t inquire…you just can’t push. If you do, you will get the overreactive and seemingly inhumane treatment that no parent deserves.
Third, all burns eventually heal, if you stop probing and picking at them! Thus, the metaphor implies that this is not a lifelong condition. However, when you stop pushing and probing, the burn begins to heal.
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.
Meet Your Teen Where They Are At!
How do you do that…you are asking?
First, rather than probing about their day, comment on the day. Simply stated, “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 where you already know or can get the answer. Instead of asking who won the game, you do a little research and then comment, “I heard you guys won by five points. Nice job.”
Third, rather than asking about the results of their math quiz, you comment, “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, you 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 you just keep getting more ugly comments.
In this approach, you stop investing in the ugly moments, and you stop being the only one always investing in the relationship. Because you do 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 takes a while to heal…just be patient for a few weeks.