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Dealing with your teen’s silent treatment

From wanting to gain control, fearing to be judged, or going through depression, there are many reasons teenagers go nil by mouth. The task is how to help them break the silence 

Betty Muindi @BettyMuindi

Sylvia Rotich is a frustrated mother. She and her teenage daughter, Lavine haven’t been talking to each other for two weeks. Jennifer says it all started when she asked her 15-year-old girl to stay indoors on a weekend to watch over her five-year-old sibling, since the house help would be off for the day.

“This did not go down well with my daughter. She wanted to hang out with her friends, but there is no way I would have allowed her to leave the baby alone, yet I was working the whole day,” says Sylvia.

This is not the first time that her daughter has reacted in this manner, every time they have a disagreement—she clams on her mother for days before she goes back to her usual mood. Other times, her moods change for no reason.

But what is even more bothering Sylvia is that her daughter would keep to herself even when she was going through something difficult. “Not so long ago, my daughter had a disagreement with her father over her bad grades at school. For three days, she could not speak to anyone in the house. I only realised later that she had a valid reason for failing. A teacher at school had been kicking her out of the class for the better part of the term. I learnt this through her classmate who lives nearby,” she explains.

But Sylvia doesn’t know what to do about the whole situation. “I don’t know how to talk to her because I am never sure whether she is listening or not,” she mourns.

Like Sylvia, getting children, especially preteens and teenagers to talk openly about what is bothering them can be difficult. Janet Okoth, a child psychologist, says good communication with children doesn’t happen automatically. Parents need to think about their approach to their children when they want them to listen and respond positively. But the most important part of parenting is establishing communication with your child early to help you down the road.

“Our children know us better than we know ourselves having spent their young lives learning our reflexive responses. If she knows what you are likely to tell her— for example that she should have studied harder when she fails her exams, chances are, she will block anything you are going to tell her,” says Okoth.

So, for example, if you suspect that talking about working harder might be a barrier, ask a more open ended and friendlier question like, “Did you think that by saying you failed in your exams, I would have a bad reaction?” This way, Janet says you will have paved the way for a productive conversation. She warns against parents telling their children statements such as ‘I told you so’ even if you actually told them so. It instead shuts them up instead of opening them up to the conversation.

She says by leaving the floor open, teenagers would share even more than what is bothering them. “For instance, your teenager might be afraid you might ban them from hanging out with a friend if she told you that her friend had a pregnancy scare. To protect her friendship, she will keep quiet about the whole incidence, and then there will be no lessons learnt,” she explains.

Also, it’s important to be honest about your own habits, “If you drink alcohol, be prepared to acknowledge that with your teenager. You can discuss both positive and negative aspects of alcohol use, but make sure you’re acting responsibly yourself,” she says.

She further advises against criticising everything teenagers do and selling them out to relatives, friends, teachers or neighbours. Overlooking minor issues, such as the clothes they wear, may mean you are still talking to each other when you want to negotiate or stand firm with them on bigger issues. Likewise, promise adolescents a high degree of confidentiality at home. “They could be concerned that we might pass on to other people what they tell us. Sometimes, what they tell us is top secret to your teenager and if they trust you to keep it to yourself, then do it, so you can build future trust,” she concludes.

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