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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

Second that emotion

A paradox of teenagehood: Kids feel chronically misunderstood, but do little to correct misconceptions about themselves. They have an image, as well as a secret self, to protect...often by saying very little. So how do you draw out these shadowy creatures in your midst? When chatting, "don’t echo back what they’ve said to prove you’ve been listening. A typical teen might reply, 'Duh, I just said that,'" observes Haight. "Instead, describe the emotion they’ve expressed." For example, if your son brings home a D in geometry and says, "I suck at math," show empathy by saying, "It’s scary to feel like you don’t get something." You’re keying in to the emotion, not telling him he’s wrong ("You’re not stupid!") or going into fix-it mode ("We’ll get a tutor").

And don’t always try to lighten the mood when your child brings up unhappy feelings; you may shut down a conversation before it starts. For instance, a pimple isn’t the end of the world. But for a teen on school-picture day? It is. "Put yourself in her shoes," says Lauren Ayers, Ph.d., a psychologist in Saratoga Springs, NY, and author of Teenage Girls: A Parent’s Survival Manual. "Remember what it was like to feel vulnerable in a high-pressure situation. You may think a joke puts the problem [or pimple] in perspective, but you’re really belittling her." Instead, empathize with the emotion. Say, "It’s frustrating to feel out of control about the way you look." Odds are, she’ll tell you more about how she’s feeling.

Be the student

Yes, you’re the parent, but flaunting your experience and expertise can make a teen clam up. Instead, "If you humble yourself, and act like you don’t have a clue, you give teens a chance to feel superior," says Ayers. "And they will take that opportunity."

Ideally, you’ll have a news-hook entry point; for example, "So California voted on legalizing marijuana. People don’t smoke pot much anymore, do they?" Your teen might talk about people he knows or things he’s heard. At the very least, you’ll gather insight and those in-demand snippets.

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