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Written by:  Gerald Taylor
Date: December 1, 2006

My Teen Has Stopped Talking to Me

Q: My teenage daughter has quit talking to me! I know that it is so important to try to keep the lines of communication open, but I’m at a loss as to what to do. All of a sudden her circle of girlfriends is all that matters. I know that this is somewhat normal, but I’m really feeling pretty helpless. I’m desperately trying to think of ways to “stay in her world.” Please help.

A: You are right to want to keep the lines of communication open. Your daughter is right in a general sense to want to control the communication that goes toward you from her. Adolescence, as you know, is a time where people most noticeably seek independence for themselves. This independence is in all areas, including separation from parents, forming friendships outside the family, exploring sexual choices, evaluating spiritual beliefs, testing moral values, questioning parental and other authority and deciding on education and occupation choices. For most adolescents the transition is fairly smooth. For others it can be rocky. It can be a time of uncertainty and insecurity for all.

Since this is a time of trying out different approaches, there is an uneven quality to adolescents’ behavior. Sometimes they get it just right. Other times it is way off course. Sometimes they appreciate consultation. Other times they want no help even when they are struggling and the parent could obviously help.

One of the ways of trying out independence is to cut off communication with parents, usually a mother. Sometimes to pull off this reduced communication, the adolescent has to devalue the parent to some extent. This questioning and devaluing of a parent is another frequently seen trait of adolescence. It is commonly seen when the adolescent does not want to be seen with the parents where their friends might see them and when they are critical of a parent’s dress, looks, age, mannerisms and whatever else. Consequently, parent’s opinions are undervalued. Again this is a natural and necessary part of growing up. Adolescents are seeing the world in an abstract way for the first time (for example, that most things are not black or white, but gray, and most thoughtful adults live in a gray world of few, if any absolutes). This is a heady feeling, as adolescents tend to think they are the first to feel and think these deep feelings and thoughts. Their self-centeredness makes it hard to believe others have felt so deeply as they have. They particularly have a hard time believing their parents have ever felt such things as deeply as they have.

That brings us back to your daughter’s cutting off communication with you. In the light of normal development she is behaving in what is a variety of normal/appropriate behavior. At what point do you worry? As with all behaviors, there is a problem when behavior interferes significantly with adjusting to life expectations. In a teenaged girl’s life, these expectations are school success, general success with friendships, feeling generally happy about herself and her choices, and not making choices that get her into significant trouble with family and societal rules.

The other side of this equation is parents’ responses to their children’s quest for independence. Both parties are losing and gaining things simultaneously. The parent is losing the dependent child who has responded to the nurturing friendship of the parent. They may be “losing” the child to different spiritual beliefs, different choices of occupations, relationships the parent does not prefer, and lifestyle choices in sex and values. To allow independence risks all these things and more. There is a certain feeling of grieving in both parties, as well as the excitement and pleasure in the developing independence. When is the parents’ response a problem? Again, only when it interferes significantly with the normal expectations of the adolescent’s life (that is school, friends, jobs, happiness in a very general fashion).

So, what should you do? Be happy. Your daughter so far is doing what she is supposed to do. You have reared her in a way that she is comfortable being herself even if it might seem to devalue some of you. Expect her to devote more time and energy to her friends. Don’t expect to know all the details of her life any longer. When she does choose to share, try to treat her more like an adult friend than a child, even when you don’t want to hear all she has to say. Do make the limits clear regarding showing you respect. Be clear regarding rules of curfews, the kinds of parties/events she may attend, drug use, responsible driving and responsibilities around the house. Consequences should be equally clear.

Your job is to love her in the broadest sense, as a gift to her. Her job is to love you back if she chooses, as she is now more independent to make the choices. The nice thing is nearly all children raised in a half-decent way turn out pretty good.

Gerald Taylor, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Moses Cone Behavioral Health Psychiatric Associates. Please submit your questions to “Is My Kid OK?” via e-mail to sherri.mcmillen@mosescone.com




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