Your grumpy teenager may not want to talk for a number of reasons. Talking to parents less is a normal part of adolescents’ development process. Your teen may just be taking space to figure out their own independence. But if they are very withdrawn from friends and activities they once loved, your teen may be struggling with a mental health challenge and could benefit from professional help.
So, your once chatty teen has suddenly clammed up. No parent enjoys getting the silent treatment from their kid, especially when you feel like you’ve enjoyed a close relationship and nothing has changed on your end. The first thing to do is to take a breath and understand that pulling away from parents is not only normal but also a necessary developmental stage of adolescence. Navigating this transition toward independence is difficult and as much as kids hate to admit it (and probably won’t), children still need parents to stay connected and involved in their lives.
Teens need their own space but they also need their parents. In fact, most teens say they want to be closer to their parents but don’t know how to do that. So while your kid is doing the work of separating, you need to do the work of carefully bridging the gap. Start by meeting them where they are.
How silent is the silent treatment?
Whether or not you have cause for concern really depends on the extent to which your kid has stopped talking. Let’s look at three possible scenarios:
#1 You and your child used to be “besties.”
They told you everything and now, suddenly, they’ve shut you out and only share their private thoughts with friends.
In this case, you have very little to worry about. And painful as it may be, you have to try not to take your child’s choice personally. They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
What to do:
- Don’t lecture your child or tell them how hurt you feel.
- Try to have positive interactions with them.
- Engage them in activities you’ve enjoyed doing together.
- Sit down to meals with them.
- Don’t pump them for information. Instead, open up and share something funny or interesting about your own life. If you open up, they’re more likely to do the same.
- Talk to them like an adult with respect and make it clear that you value their opinions and expect respect in return.
#2 Your once lovely and affectionate child now responds to you with one-word answers and annoyed eye rolling.
They spend as little time with you as possible and seem to reserve all their enthusiasm for their friends.
Though it may be maddening and you might be tempted to punish this kind of behavior, know that it still falls well within the range of normal teenage development. Focusing on peer relationships helps kids learn to be less dependent on parents—a necessary step to becoming happy, independent adults. That said, it’s still your job to insist on respect and to keep your child safe.
What to do:
- Set appropriate limits, but focus on strengthening your relationship, too. You’ll get no respect if your child doesn’t feel connected to you.
- Resist the urge to lecture. If you can do that, they won’t need to push you away in order to become themselves.
- Remember that teenagers can be emotional. Look for the distress under the disrespect, and remind them of who they really are. By saying something like, “I know you’re upset but aren’t normally unkind,” you can create the beginning of a conversation.
#3 Your child speaks to no one and spends all their time in their room with the door closed.
Your child has withdrawn from friends, lost interest in activities that once gave them pleasure, and has grown increasingly isolated.
This kind of behavior is cause for serious concern and falls outside the realm of the normal teenage development. You need to find out whether your child has undergone some kind of trauma (bullying, rape) or is abusing drugs or alcohol. This behavior could also indicate the beginning of a serious mental health issue such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, all which become more common in the late teens and early 20s.
It’s dangerous if they’re pulling away from everyone they know. Retreating into an online world, for instance, isn’t an acceptable substitute for talking to people in real life. Internet relationships can become very intense very fast, and it’s hard to know if the people your child is friends with online are a good influence, or even who they say they are.
What to do:
- If your child seems hostile and angry, give them the chance to explain if you’ve done something wrong.
- Privacy only goes so far. No teenager’s room should be off-limits to a parent. You have the right to know what your child is doing in their room, especially if they are spending hours at a time alone there.
- Insist on more information. It’s not at all uncommon for teens to answer questions like “Where are you going?” by saying simply, “Out.” And “When will you be back?” with “Later.” Stand firm and tell them you need specifics.
- In cases where your kid refuses to communicate, it may be advisable to monitor their social media.
- Seek professional help from a qualified clinician. Begin by calling your child’s pediatrician and describing their behavior in detail.
If you suspect your teen might be feeling suicidal
If you even suspect this might be the case, you need to address the issue immediately. But calmly. “It’s important that you talk about your concerns in a calm, non-accusatory manner,” says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist and expert on suicide in young people. “Sometimes when parents are very worried, they end up saying, ‘Don’t think this way,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ and they come across not as loving and caring, as intended, but as critical. Children respond negatively to that.”
Kaslow also recommends:
- Let your child know you love them over and over again when they’re having a hard time.
- Validate their feelings by saying things that show empathy such as: “It sounds like that was really difficult.” “I know how painful that can be.”
- Work with your child to get professional help and explain that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness.
When it comes to the silent treatment, remember, it’s not about you. You have to pick your battles and give your kid room to grow. But you also have to put your child’s health and well being above all else, and that means staying connected even when they doesn’t make it easy.
Frequently Asked Questions
You talk to a teenager who doesn’t want to talk to you by resisting the urge to lecture and talking to them like an adult. Make it clear that you value their opinions and expect respect in return.