Ask Maxwell: Speaking To Your Teenager About Their Feelings?

published Apr 25, 2022
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan
It's all about getting into their music, especially. Yes, I went with my daughter and two of her classmates to see Billie Eilish last month at the Garden. It was awesome. :)

My son and I used to talk all the time, but now that he’s a teenager he just clams up. What’s a healthy way to keep channels open with him and stay in touch with what he’s going through?


Dear Elaine,

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and this past week I had a small breakthrough (aided by my therapist, who is love).

Staying in touch with your children as they go through the teenage years is INCREDIBLY HARD, but IMPORTANT. I remember when I was in teacher training and my teacher said it’s very easy to chart the growth of your students as they progress from first grade to eighth grade based solely on where their desks are at the end of the day. In the early grades, he said, you will find that they come towards you and, at the end of the day, you’ll have to push all the desks back a foot or two to line them up again. This reverses around sixth grade and the desks will all go away from you – ending up at the back of the room! Students, as they head into middle school and above, will tend to pull back from adult interaction as they experience puberty.

One of my favorite books on children’s growth, Phases of Childhood, puts it this way:

During the first seven years the child was still one with the world and the world still formed part of his being; during the second period of seven years the self and the world gradually separate and at the age of fourteen the loneliness of puberty is upon him.

[At this time} authority as an educational principle no longer applies with the onset of puberty. The young person wishes to acknowledge older people as leaders through friendship.

This friendship is the key. I’ve found that one part of this is being genuinely interested in what they are interested in – in other words, staying close to what is making them feel good in the world. I’ve found that if I get my daughter talking about what SHE’S interested in, she’ll go on for hours, so I’ve become very knowledgeable in pop music, nail and sneaker culture, teen clothing style, thrifting and the beauty of vintage concert t’s, smelly candles and face care products. I simply ask about any one of these things and the words just keep coming. These passions also keep changing, but I now genuinely enjoy knowing her world on this level and she seems to enjoy sharing it with me.

Going deeper can be hard, but this is what I’m working on right now. At the age of fourteen or fifteen – let’s say beginning high school – a child is old enough to talk about how YOU are feeling. In other words, you can let down the PARENTAL AUTHORITY MODE and open up and be a FRIEND. This takes the form of saying things like “Now that you’re fifteen, you’re old enough to talk with me about things that are going on and how they feel.” Then, instead of getting them to talk about themselves first, you be the role model and share a little bit about how you are feeling, inviting them to talk more if they want to. That can take the form of, “You know that mom and I have been trying to agree on our next move and it’s been really stressful. It’s been hard for me because when I grew up we lived in the same place for a long time and never moved, so I really have a hard time with it.”

By sharing how YOU feel and also sharing your awareness of where your feelings come from – the patterns you’ve brought from childhood – you give your son or daughter an invitation into talking about their own feelings and seeing how it can be done with a friend – which is YOU.

This really is an invitation, you can’t force it, but if you can show an awareness of your own feelings and your own patterns you open a door, AND you also give you teenage son or daughter a reference for understanding the patterns they might be experiencing in themselves! In other words, if you – as a mom – can share your own experience and patterns that might be having with their dad because of what you picked up from your own mother and father, then you can pass that generational consciousness down to them. It’s all about admitting your own feelings first and being conscious of what you’ve inherited.

Hey, it’s worth a try and I’m trying it right now and it’s working pretty nicely… and it feels so good to drop the I’M IN CHARGE ALL THE TIME and just be a FRIEND, which is exactly what they need.

Best, M

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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