Do you feel like your teen tunes you out-or just plain ignores you-any time
you make a request or try to have a real conversation? If you're feeling this
way, it's probably not your imagination. This is a weapon adolescents have in
their arsenal, and many use it to manipulate their parents passive-aggressively.
Keep in mind that it's not always intentional. Some kids are easily distracted
or can only focus on one thing at a time-they really can't communicate while
concentrating on something else. But many kids ignore their parents to
manipulate them. Instead of "acting out" they're "acting in". They might be
angry or want you to leave them alone. Instead of yelling, "Stop bothering me!"
they simply tune you out. The question is, what can you do about it?
It's also important to remember that tuning
parents out-as annoying as it is for us-is part of growing up. (This doesn't
mean you should always put up with it, however. More on this later.) As your
child goes through different ages and stages, you'll find that you get different
responses from him. Perhaps when your child was eight or nine, he enjoyed
talking with you about everything. Your teen, on the other hand, probably
doesn't want to talk to you so much. He's still figuring out who he is and is
likely becoming more private. As parents it's important to respect that.
I want to start by giving you some general guidelines on what to do any time
your child or teen is ignoring you, regardless of whether or not he or she is
doing it on purpose. In the next part of the article, I'll give you specific,
concrete steps to deal with a child or teen who is tuning you out intentionally.
8 Steps to Turn the "Tune-out" into a "Tune-in"
1. Remove distractions: When you really want to talk with your child, stop all
distractions and outside stimuli. Here's a tip: Ask your child to turn off the
TV, cell phone or computer. It's important to have him do it rather than just
shutting off the TV yourself. Why? It becomes an active lesson for him about how
to best pay attention. This is especially important if your child has a hard
time focusing or concentrating, because this is a skill he will need his whole
life. Bottom line: When you want to have a conversation, reduce stimulation.
2. Be clear and keep your tone neutral. Tell your child that you want to have a
conversation. Be very clear about what you want to say; don't be too wordy. Try
to limit the information you want to get across because if you don't, your child
is not going to be able to absorb it all. It can be hard for kids to really sit
down and have a conversation with parents. We often talk too much and make
things too complicated because we're adults and that's how we think and talk.
Kids are often unable to express themselves well, so they may appear not to be
communicating cooperatively because they're not saying much-but in actuality,
they may not know how to articulate what they want to say. It's also important
to have a very matter of fact tone of voice. Sometimes your child will take in
your tone and the look on your face even more than your words.
3. Don't use words that shut down the conversation. It's also important to be
aware of conversational "triggers"-words you use that may trigger your child to
shut down. When my own son was a teen, I used to start conversations with him by
saying, "I want to talk to you." But what he heard was, "You're in trouble."
When I realized it was a trigger for him that actually shut down communication,
I knew I had to find a different way to start discussions. I changed my approach
and started saying things like, "I was thinking about you and had some thoughts
I wanted to share with you." This worked well because it invited a discussion
instead of shutting it down. Another way to more openly communicate with your
child would be to say, "Maybe we could have some alone time, just the two of us,
and discuss how things are going over breakfast." Try not to use words that you
always use when you're angry. Changing your tone of voice might also help make
your child less defensive. Remember, you want to set the stage for more open
4. Set the stage for a more open discussion. Decide when you want to have that
conversation with your child. Choose the time you want to talk to your
child-don't always let the time choose you. Before you do, find a quiet, private
place and make sure outside stimuli are shut down. Believe it or not, sometimes
your child really doesn't hear you. He really can only focus on one thing at a
time. Car rides are often a great place to have conversations with our kids-it's
soothing, and it gives them a sense of space which might help them deal with
more difficult subjects. It also provides a change of scenery. You could also
take your child to a place where grown-ups have conversations, like a coffee
shop or a restaurant. I've found this works very well, especially if you need to
have more of a grown-up conversation.
5. Don't expect a long conversation. Don't expect a lot back from your child,
especially if you happen to have a quiet kid. When my son was a teen, there was
no way he was going to have a paragraph response to anything we said-even if it
was important. So really know your child and how verbal he or she is, and don't
expect more than they can give.
6. Think about saying it differently. If you've said the same thing over and
over and your child always tunes you out, it's very likely that if you say it
again, it's not going to matter. If you do the same thing over and over, you're
likely going to get the same response over and over. So say it differently and
stage it differently. Maximize your child's ability to hear you, especially if
you have something negative or difficult to deliver. Really take time to think
about the best way to communicate. Make sure you are calm when you talk to them,
as well. One suggestion would be to frame it as a direct question: "What are you
supposed to be doing right now?" Your child might answer, "My homework." And you
can simply say, "Right, then go do it."
7. Play it back. Ask your child to "play back" to you what they've heard. You
could say, for example, "What do you think I'm saying?" Or "What did you hear me
say? I need to hear it in your own words. Any comments, any responses?" (Be sure
to say this in a neutral, matter of fact way.) If they can repeat what you've
said, you'll know if they've heard it correctly.
8. Setting limits when kids won't listen. Let's say the conversation is about
studying and it's a chronic problem. You've given your child some
recommendations but she's still missing some assignments, failing to study for
tests and doing poorly. You might say, "If you're not open to suggestions and
doing things differently, I'll need to get more involved and talk with your
teacher about this. I will meet with her and come up with a plan for you." This
is one way to let your child know that you mean business. You're not going to
just let it go because your child doesn't want to listen; you're going to take
some action. You also may choose to put limits around computer use, the cell
phone and free time, because your child needs those external limits to study
better. So remember, when you decide to set limits, it goes from a conversation
to an action.
When Your Child Ignores You on Purpose: Putting Advice into Practice
What should you do when your child is ignoring you on purpose? Let's say your
13-year-old is sitting in the living room texting a friend. You need to talk to
her about her disrespectful, rude outburst in the kitchen an hour before. First,
have her turn off the electronics. If she still ignores you or won't engage in
conversation, tell her to go to her room. You can say, "When you're ready to
talk, come down." Take the cell phone, computer, iPod and other distractions out
of her room, by the way-make sure she doesn't have too much to do in there.
Eventually, if kids can't do anything else, they will likely talk to you.
Instead of leaving it up to the child to come and talk, some parents might
prefer to go up and check in on the child from time to time instead. It depends
on the parent and the kid-but regardless, make sure your son or daughter is calm
and ready to talk when you finally sit down. One note: If this happens around a
mealtime, your child can come and eat. Be matter of fact, give them their meal,
and then send them back to their room afterward. Again, they need to be calm and
able to listen.
Next, do some planning about where you want to sit and talk. When your child
finally comes downstairs, sit and have that discussion with her. Ask what the
problem is and what she sees going on. Listen and then give your version of
events. You can say, "This is what I observed. I came in the kitchen, I asked
you to do something and you just blatantly ignored me. You didn't follow through
and were disrespectful and rude when I asked to talk about this." Put it out
there for her: "It feels to me like maybe you're angry because I said you
couldn't sleep over at your friend's house. Are you ready to talk about it now?"
Remember to keep a neutral tone. Defiant kids will try to pull you in. If your
child starts to escalate or shuts you out again, you can say, "Okay, I guess you
weren't ready to talk yet. Go back to your room until you are." Don't ask, "Why
are you so angry?" "Why" questions don't take you anywhere, because they are
blaming questions-it sounds like you are blaming your child for something right
off the bat. Starting with why often ends in an argument.
Again, be calm and be explicit about what you observed. If your child has been
disrespectful, you can say, "That behavior is not acceptable. It's okay to be
angry, but rude, disrespectful behavior is not okay." (Let her know what the
consequences will be if she has crossed the line by swearing or name-calling.)
As difficult as it is, try to remain calm and matter of fact during the entire
Believe me, I understand that this isn't easy-but the rewards are well worth it.
What you're trying to do is build the opportunity to have an open discussion
with your child and help her gain insight. You want her to learn better
problem-solving skills that she'll be able to use when she's an adult.
Remember, communication takes time. The end goal is that your child will be able
to look at herself honestly, take responsibility for her actions, and learn how
to communicate with people in a healthy way.
(Tuning You Out: When Your Child Ignores You reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents)
by Janet Lehman, MSW
Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled
children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of
The Total Transformation. She is a social worker who has held a variety of
positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager,
therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and
in group homes for difficult children.