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How to communicate with a ‘prickly’ teen

The process is like peeling an onion…layer by layer.

Developmentally it is normal for an adolescent to seek more autonomy and privacy about his/her personal matters, which often inhibits open communication with their parents about their daily lives. We as parents need to initiate conversations with them despite their snarly, prickly demeanor. Sometimes they are secretly wondering if you care enough to ask and break through the snarly demeanor. The metaphor of “peeling the onion” helps to describe the process in which you attempt to reveal the many layers of emotion a person may be experiencing and to avoid one-word answers. In talking to your prickly teen, this method can be effective in drawing out information and to identify and validate feelings that are being communicated. Emotions are usually complex and can be hard to articulate because one thinks they must pick one emotion. Teens may also feel the internal pressure that they should already know how to deal with difficult situations and don’t want to be judged harshly.

To set the stage, find a time when you can be fully attentive and emotionally present, empathic, calm, and open to how your teen may be feeling and why. Resist the temptation to fix the problem, give advice, minimize, or lecture the problems or emotions away. You begin with something like “so how are you doing since you had your fight with your friend Wally?” The first layer being peeled… He says, “not good, he told everyone that I failed my math test.” Before you move on to peeling the next layer, you need to paraphrase what you understood about how he was feeling. This helps your son to name the emotion (instead of a vague comment) as well as to demonstrate that you are being an attentive, caring listener. This approach helps you to go below the surface. You say, “so you felt embarrassed that your friends knew you failed.” He gives some nod that you got the essence of what he was feeling. In peeling the next layer of the onion, you ask, “And what else?” He says, “I use to trust Wally with stuff I told him, I can’t believe he did that!” And you paraphrase with “sounds like you feel surprised, angry that he blabbed about your private info” or “he was disloyal, trying to get attention at your expense…” As he nods and agrees that you understand the essence of what he’s feeling, most people are inclined to keep sharing, because they want relief from the sting of emotions. You will notice as you keep going deeper that the person’s vulnerability becomes more exposed. You keep peeling the layers with additional, “And what else?” until you feel you have gotten through all the emotions (peeled the onion). In the psychology world we like to say, “if you can name it (emotion), you will tame it!”

It usually helps to inquire if they just needed to vent or if they could use some parental advice on how to solve the problem. Although your intention may be to help, when parents race in to tell their teen what to do, it often makes them feel insulted because the implication is that they cannot fix it themselves. It is best if you express empathy and support and an invitation to come talk more if they need to. Now I also know that the hardest thing as a parent is to remain calm and neutral as your teen talks about their distress! However, we need to stay focused on our teen’s emotional well-being to create an accepting, supportive, respectful atmosphere where open communication is valued.

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