Decoding teens

"I try so hard, but my teen won’t talk to me.” 

As a therapist who specializes in working with youth, I’ve heard this statement a lot. Parents have said it with tears in their eyes and with desperation in their voices. 

Teens, when asked why they won’t open up to parents, often give vague and confusing answers, and it can be tempting to dismiss their comments as generic teen angst. 

However, when we decode these responses, we often find a deeper meaning and are thus better equipped to get teens to open up. Here’s what teens may actually mean when they utter these common phrases:

‘You just don’t understand!’

This statement usually means: I don’t have the ability to explain this, and I’m scared you won’t take me seriously. 

Teens don’t always know how to clearly state their problems or identify what they need, and adults can be quick to make assumptions. 

When a teen says, “You don’t understand,” resist the urge to respond with “Sure I do, I was a teenager once,” and instead say, “You’re right, I don’t understand this from your angle, but I really, really want to.” 

Then give them a chance to explain. Ask how they feel, what they think they should do and what they need. Once they’ve had time to express themselves, try to validate their feelings, offer a summary of your understanding of the problem and give them a chance to correct any misunderstandings. Then — and this is the hardest part — accept your teen’s version of the problem and help them sort it out from his or her perspective. 

‘You always overreact!’ 

Translation: I’m afraid of hurting you, disappointing you or making you mad. 

When a teen shares something troubling, for example, that they’re feeling depressed or have recently tried drinking alcohol, it’s normal for parents to experience a range of emotions. 

However, parents need to take responsibility for their own feelings and not allow them to take over the conversation. If you have a strong emotional reaction to what your teen says, the best thing to do is acknowledge it and move on: “I’m sad that you’re going through this, but I’m really glad you told me.” 

Then steer the conversation back to your child. If a teen discloses something that requires you to intervene or impose consequences, wait until you have both processed your feelings before deciding on what to do and make sure to give them credit for opening up to you.  

‘You’ll only make it worse!’ 

This usually means: I’m scared you’ll take control or I’m scared you won’t respect what I need or want. 

When a teen discloses a problem, like bullying or that a close friend is using drugs, it’s often necessary for parents to step in. Sometimes the school has to be notified, or sometimes contact with a friend has to be limited to keep teens safe. 

However, these types of actions need to be carefully thought out and done with as much input from the teen as possible. Sometimes the best thing parents can do — especially with older teens — is resist the urge to take over and instead walk teens through making their own choices. 

So … what else can you do?

There are a few things every parent can do to become more approachable: Make sure conversations aren’t limited to checking in about school, homework
and chores. 

Talk about things that interest your teen, like music or video games and explore the world from his or her point of view. 

It can be discouraging to reach out to a teen who’s angry or shut down — and hard to know when to push and when to back off. But regardless of your teen’s response, the most important thing any parent can do is to keep trying and continue to let them know you care. And — no matter how much they push you away — keep showing up. 


Eowyn Gatlin-Nygaard is a therapist with Headway Emotional Health. Headway’s 200-plus staff in Golden Valley, Richfield, Brooklyn Center and Hopkins provide comprehensive mental-health therapy, counseling and classes to more than 77,000 families every year.