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Health & Parenting

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What Your Teen Isn't Telling You

If your child has been giving you the silent treatment, here's how to subtly but surely improve


The sad irony about so-called "healthy separation": It happens at precisely the wrong time. In high school (or before), kids stumble onto the rockiest terrain of their young lives — sex, drugs, alcohol, body-image issues, social and academic pressure. Having been there, I have so much wisdom to share. Maggie, though, isn’t remotely interested in hearing it.

The child who used to sit on my lap while we watched American Idol now thinks I’m a nosy, judgmental, critical, interfering rube. She’s right. But still. I'm not curious about my daughter's private life for my sake. The goal isn't to crack her like a nut. I just want to make sure she's OK...and, if not, to reassure Maggie that I want to help. Communication and conversation: That's what I want. And so, seeking to grease the wheels of teen/parent relations, I ferreted out strategies from experts plus some other unlikely (but wise) suspects.

Here’s what I learned:

Take the side door

When talking to teens, the straightforward approach will likely lead you into a brick wall. If your child sees an intrusive question coming, he’ll deflect it. Instead, initiate a conversation with seemingly harmless questions. "You might be trying to find out the name of your child's new friend. Don’t say, 'Who’s that kid you're always texting lately?'" says Robin Haight, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescents and who is in private practice in Vienna, Va. "Instead, ask banal questions: 'What video game are you playing?' 'Do you get high scores?' Your son might start talking about the game and mention that 'Brian' gets better scores. A few days later, you might hear more about Brian. With teens, information comes in snippets. As a parent, you gather those bits and try to fill in the big picture."

While the stealth approach will yield more of these snippets, it will take time, so be patient — and proactive. "Create what I call a 'target-rich environment,'" says Haight. "Ask more of those harmless questions that might lead somewhere. Keep the topics neutral: sports, food, shopping." It could take weeks of conversational sidewinding to net a juicy nugget of information. Chatting about Grand Theft Auto and Lady Gaga for hours may seem like wasted breath, but, cautions Haight, keep in mind that "you're building comfort and trust, and reinforcing the connections within the family."

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