“I don’t know.” Is it the stock answer teens give their parents for every question? Does it mean more than just a lack of an answer? How do we get them to speak to us and to have a conversation? There are ways to talk to teens, develop relationships through communication and not feel like an interrogator.
To get around the “I don’t know”, start by changing your attitude, mood, and how you start the conversation. Connect with them with a high energy greeting showing your good disposition. The frame of mind that you display sets the tone for the conversation. A high energy, happy greeting and smile goes a long way towards setting the mood and showing your child that you are happy and that they have nothing to fear by being open and honest with you. Teens, unless they prove to you otherwise, want their parents to be proud of, and accepting of, them. Set the stage of your conversation so that they are comfortable; help them by making it as easy as possible for them to talk to you. Ask questions that cannot be answered with just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
“I don’t know” is a response with many different meanings; it can be “no one has asked me that before” and “I genuinely have no idea how to answer”. This is your chance to be silent and let them mull it over for a few moments. When you are silent, it puts the emphasis back on to the adolescent to come up with an answer. Show them that you are interested and receptive to what they are going to say. Your body language conveys your curiosity – lean forward, face them, make good eye contact without being overbearing, and be aware of the voice you use when you talk. After a few moments of quiet, change the question subtly but ask them the same basic question; continue to show them interest. You can give them an idea by rephrasing your question to help spark their response.
At times, the response “I don’t know” means, “I have thought about it and I really do not have an idea or opinion one way or another”. If you think their response means this, clarify it with them. This is a valuable time to teach them and to share yourself openly to increase trust and amplify the quality of your relationship. Kindly ask questions and have a conversation about their thought process, find out where they were stuck in searching out an answer. You can share your experience in how you would answer the question that you had asked. When you share about yourself, keep it simple, brief and to the point. Remember that the conversation is about your child and their concerns; they have to grow and learn to live their own way.
Occasionally “I do not know” can mean, “the question you asked me is a poor one”, or “I do not understand what you are asking me”. After you have given your teen a few moments to come up with a better answer and they appear not to understand, clarify your question by asking it in a different way. Remember to avoid asking “why” questions. These questions start with “why”, or include only the word “why”. Often people do not understand why they did something, but just went through an action without a lot of consideration. When you ask someone “why”, they are often put onto the spot and have to come up with a reason for their act instead of working with you to increase understanding. A teenager put on the spot is frequently going to say anything that pops into their mind instead of really thinking through what they are being asked; hence, parents often are told, “I don’t know”.
Lastly, “I don’t know” can signify “I do not want to talk to you”, or “I do not want to talk about that subject”. There are many ways to defuse this situation, including silence with receptive body language, clarifying that you need an answer, and giving an example answer. An additional way to communicate when told “I don’t know” includes explaining to your teen that you understand that it is a sensitive subject and that you respect that they may not want to talk about it. You can respect and understand that it is sensitive to them and you will treat them with respect, and offer to talk to them about the subject later or when they are ready, or after you both take a break from the conversation.
As your child uses “I don’t know” to push you away and tell you they do not want to talk to you, explain that your conversation is important and that you want to understand what is happening or are seeking an explanation. Offer to help them help you, and seek out ways to understand what is happening when they push you away with their words. Avoid creating a confrontation and an argument because you cannot make them talk to you; getting into an argument works to their advantage to avoid discussing what you are asking. Recognize when you are getting upset or your teen is trying to get away from the conversation. Be receptive to letting the conversation wait for a better time in order to avoid a fight. As they keep using “I don’t know” time and again, recover the conversation by explaining to them that you know what it means and that you are trying hard to communicate, respect them, and their opinions.
Talking to your children does not have to feel like a cross-examination, but can instead be satisfying banter. Remember, “I don’t know” means: “no one has asked that before”; “I really do not know”; “I do not have an answer”; or, “I do not want to talk to you”. You can try different means to get past the dismay that “I don’t know” causes parents and adults. Keep your body language receptive and encourage communication with your silence, clarify your question, relate about yourself and explain that you understand them. Following these steps can help you increase communication and fortify the relationship you have with your child.
© Copyright 2011 by Jeffrey Gallup. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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