What Do You Do When a Kid Won’t Talk?

Sometimes teens clam up. It may be for a day or two, for weeks at a time, or you may have a child whose nature is to keep things close to the vest. Whatever the reason, if your kids don’t talk, the job of parenting is a whole lot tougher.

Taking a bite of a healthy snackWhen you need to get your teenager to talk, where do you start? My secret weapon – food helps!

Tweens and teens are growing fast. Sometimes they’re in an energy lull, and need to EAT. Don’t try to engage them in a discussion if they’re hungry! Start with healthy food – and plentiful amounts. That’s my Plan A.

Plan B is humor. An unexpected move, face, or line – and walls come tumbling down – at least for a minute or two! And that may be enough to sneak in a necessary question, or kick-start a better mood for conversation.

Communication Tools, Habit, or Too Much Pressure?

My non-talker is 16; some of his distance is just that. He’s also a private kid; always has been. The challenge?

I don’t know what’s in his head right now, and there have been changes-a-plenty around here in the past 10 days including increasing money pressures, his brother’s departure, and a girl in his life.

I need to know what’s going on with him in order to parent him. And I’m not sure he has the tools or the opportunities to communicate with me in ways that are helpful to him – or me.

Ah, for the good old days of “just” sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to worry about! Now we live in times with additional burdens – debt, foreclosures, parents out of work, dissipated college funds, fewer scholarships, and even unpaid internships are drying up. Our kids’ dreams are at risk, and they know it.

If it’s scary for the adults, how must if feel to an adolescent? Or even a younger child?

Kids Don’t Talk for Good Reason.

“Home” isn’t what it used to be, which doesn’t mean that 20 years ago or 40 years ago it was any easier to get an adolescent to open up to a parent. They’re resetting boundaries with us. They’re testing their wings. They’re surly, moody, churning new experiences and dreaming of others. They’re also a bit of a mess inside, and trying to stand on their own as they figure it out.

Still, our household is one of millions dependent on a single parent, and millions more in which the wage-earning parent is a casualty of the economy. Children feel the stress – in everything from careful choices at the supermarket, to worry about the rent or mortgage. There’s also little money for them to pursue their interests or socialize, unless they manage to get a job. And around here? Few jobs for teens. Virtually nothing.

Then what?

Kids are frustrated and resentful. We’re the adults. We should be able to make things better, but we can’t.  Not always. It’s a tough lesson – for them and for us. Add in the ever-present gadgetry allowing adolescents to communicate without having to TALK (or spell) – and you end up with stressed-out, self-expression-challenged kids.

Kitchen Talk

I admit I’m the first to feel guilty if everything isn’t going well with my kids, and the first to blame myself. I’m trying to cut that out. It’s unproductive and based on faulty assumptions that we can fix things that are beyond our control. Sometimes, we have to let those things go. Easier said than done.

As for my son, the other night I sat him down, gave him food, and told him we needed to talk. I said that nothing was wrong, but so much was changing – he was changing – and I needed to know what was up in his life so that if he needed help, I could be there for him.

Then I said: “I don’t know how to talk to you anymore. I need you to teach me. I need to learn how to ask the right questions so you can talk, and I can listen.”

He thought for a minute. Then he surprised me, and said: “It must be hard to be a parent.”

What followed were three painstaking hours of conversation, at his pace. Eventually we covered a lot of topics, and I think we both felt better afterward.

For now, I hope we’ll be able to communicate more easily. At the very least, I think we’ll cut each other some slack. For awhile. I know more about his world and his worries; he knows more about mine. But in a week, I may have to start all over again, with exactly the same method, or possibly a Plan C.


You May Also Enjoy

© D. A. Wolf


  1. Timothy says

    Humor always seemed to break the ice–eventually. As they got older, they seemed able to hold out longer. After all, Dad humor is pretty easy to write off as embarrassing. But eventually, even that was put to work in the cause of better communication.

    Once I got to them by suggesting a plus/delta on my appearance. They got a lot out of their systems with the long list of deltas.

    Then we talked.

  2. says

    Great post! I love your line “I don’t know how to talk to you any more. I need you to teach me.” So honest. And the real beauty of it was the fact that you weren’t demanding anything of him. (which we all know can work wonders in triggering defensiveness.) You just calmly expressed your confusion and your need. And you got empathy in return.


  3. BigLittleWolf says

    A tween is really a preteen. Puberty is knock-knock-knocking on the door… Your kid is too old for toys, really struggling with issues of identity, beginning to defy authority, but not yet a teen – which is a full-fledged continuation of same (with more flailing about, flaring up, and developmental stages that cause parental hair to gray or fall out).

    Tweens (for “between”) generally cover ages 9 to 12 or 10 to 13, depending on who you talk to.

    Brace yourself – and enjoy the years before! (It’s not that bad; it keeps the hair care and pharmaceutical sectors strong.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge