How to Move Beyond “I Don’t Know” with Teens

Parents and teen kids talking“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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Linda shrowd

    Linda shrowd

    September 12th, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    How was your day? “Good”, Do you have any tests? “I don’t know”, These are the responses a can expect everyday from my 13 and 15 year olds. So I definitely know what you’re saying. I think for my kids at least it’s because they aren’t interested in talking to me.

    They’ll chat with their friends all day long but I guess Mom is cool enough to get their attention. I don’t think waving money at them could get them to talk! I’ll have to try extra hard to greet them enthusiastically. I think I do a pretty good job of this already but the fact that my kids don’t talk to me proves otherwise. Thanks for the tips!

  • Violet W.

    Violet W.

    September 12th, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    Argh! If I had a dime for every time I heard “I don’t know” come out of my daughter’s mouth I’d be a millionaire! Half the time she doesn’t even look up from her cellphone and give me the courtesy of eye contact before mumbling that at me.

    Thanks very much Jeffrey for giving me a tool I can use to break her out of that habit, because I’m sure that’s all it is.

  • Jameson

    Jameson

    September 12th, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    I always thought that my own parents were so lame,trying to be upbeat and positive and all that jazz.I just knew that they wanted something from me.
    But guess what? Now I am that parent wanting to hear all about my own kids day, and all they have to say is something that comes out as a quick mumble before they head off to the bedroom!
    It is so frustrating because I just want to be involved in their lives, but I guess just like I did, they won’t let me in.

  • jolanda p.

    jolanda p.

    September 12th, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    “When you are silent, it puts the emphasis back on to the adolescent to come up with an answer.” My son gets very nervous if you try that. He’s extremely uncomfortable with silence and sees it as pressure when it’s really not.

    Would it help to precede it by saying “I’ll give you a moment more to think about it? ” or would that makes things worse?

  • Barbara L.

    Barbara L.

    September 12th, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    I feel like I have an alien living in my house. I see a teen, but it must be an alien. That’s the only explanation.

    When I was growing up my mom and I had a very good relationship. We were like best buddies. She didn’t let me away with anything, mind you but I could talk to her about anything and everything.

    Fast forward to me now being a mother and having this sulky, belligerent 14 year old who never wants to chat and sees every approach I make to communicate and bond as either me bossing her around or smothering her. It’s always extremes with some ulterior motive conjured up in her mind.

    “I don’t know” is her warcry. I hear it all the time and nine times out of ten it’s sheer laziness. It’s not that she doesn’t know the answer. She says it because she can’t be bothered talking to me.

  • Ellie Alberts

    Ellie Alberts

    September 12th, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    Oh! It is SO good to know I’m not alone in this and other parents have daughters like mine. :) When I ask her is there anything wrong, how’s school, why is her room a mess yet again (yes I’m guilty of the why question-noted), shall we go see a movie, what does she want for dinner, how her friends are…- from the smallest questions or the biggest- that’s what I get. An I don’t know and if I’m lucky a bonus shrug of the shoulders. It’s infuriating.

    I’ll take your suggestions on board, Jeffrey. Thanks for sharing.

  • gail stuart

    gail stuart

    September 12th, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    @Ellie-You have my sympathy. Mine have a slightly expanded repertoire. “I don’t know.” “Do what you want to do.” “Whatever.” “I don’t mind.”

    Such is life with my teens. I’m at my wits end on how to communicate with mine! I have two boys, 15 and 13, and they both communicate like that 90% of the time. It’s very stressful when you want to do your best for them and they won’t meet you halfway when you want to talk with them.

    It makes me feel like a failure as a mother than I can’t get more that this out of their mouths. Seriously, am I that hard to talk to? Did I morph into this ogre overnight and nobody told me? Every response from the boys seems directed at ending the conversation as fast as possible and it doesn’t matter what the topic is!

    I’m on the verge of giving up. It makes me sad because I thought our relationship would be so different by this age and we’d be more open to hearing each other out at least.

  • Marcus.E

    Marcus.E

    September 12th, 2011 at 7:14 PM

    As far as my experience goes,I don’t know most often means I have bad news regarding what you’re asking and I don’t want to say it directly! I’ve heard this I don’t know just so many times from my two teenage kids that I actually say I don’t know when in a similar situation myself!

  • WxYz

    WxYz

    September 13th, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    Kids these days are just so tough to handle.They are hardly open about things to their parents and this catch-phrase of theirs is thrown around all the time.

    I read through the entire article and the suggestions that the writer has made are not only good but are also very practical.i am sure to try these and stump my children the next time ;)

  • Jeffrey Gallup

    Jeffrey Gallup

    September 13th, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    All I can say folks is thanks for the positive comments. “I don’t know.” is very tough to handle especially when we are craving that relationship with our children. If silence puts too much pressure on them at first I think telling them you will give them a few minutes to think it through can be helpful. Eventually they will learn that your silence means that you are waiting for a real answer, then you just have to learn to be more patient then your child.

    Jeff

  • Maggie

    Maggie

    September 13th, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    Every day I walk in to the house wondering what child is going to greet me when I come in. Will it be my sweet loving child or will it be the monster that sometimes possesses her? I never know what I going to be up against. Not only am I getting that lack of communication but I am also getting the moodiness like crazy! She seems like she is crazy, and that is MAKING me crazy!! I try to understand, I try to remember what it was like at that age, but I have to tell you that this is trying my soul. I knw rationally that this too will pass; I am just hoping that I make it to that point :)

  • Marjorie Grant

    Marjorie Grant

    September 13th, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    If your teenager says they don’t want to discuss a certain subject, you need to ask yourself if you would want your own mother asking that. If the answer is no, then back off for awhile at least. There are some things teens are simply not comfortable talking about and pushing them to answer what they see as very personal questions is going to harm your relationship.

  • Cynthia Swain

    Cynthia Swain

    September 13th, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    My mother CONSTANTLY prodded me on how my periods were doing from the very first one I had. I kept telling her many many times that how they were was absolutely none of her business whatsoever. I told her that if I had a problem, I would tell her. She didn’t take the hint and continued to ask about them throughout my teens until I moved away to college.

    The last time I talked to her was when she called me on the phone, and started on about it again! I’m 24! In a fit of rage I yelled “Are you going to ever stop asking me if Aunt Flo is visiting!?” and hung up. We’ve not spoken since.

    The woman’s obsessed. I swear she is.

  • sussana

    sussana

    September 13th, 2011 at 11:51 PM

    @Maggie:Its all a part of growing up.I know sometimes it feels like it may never end and that you cannot survive it.been there done that.But please remember that its all going to change slowly and from the little monster will grow a well-behaved charismatic young person :)

  • paulette hennessey

    paulette hennessey

    September 14th, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    @Cynthia Swain – Hey, I just had a thought Cynthia. Perhaps she wasn’t obsessed and was just being a mom. Maybe she’s been worried you would get pregnant all this time and that was her roundabout way of asking you if you were having sex, possibly pregnant or on the pill. It’s possible.

    Don’t be too tough on your mom. I’m sure she loves you and wants to look out for you, that’s all. Moms do that. :)

  • Thad Pinewood

    Thad Pinewood

    September 14th, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    Clarity in communication is important, because not saying what you mean and not meaning what you say results in you both being on the wrong page. Word meanings can change from one generation to the next too. Bad can mean good for example to young people.

    When there’s a gulf there, it makes conversations more complicated than they need be. Use the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) business principle and ask them to do the same when you’re talking to each other.

  • Lesley-Anne Richmond

    Lesley-Anne Richmond

    September 14th, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    @Cynthia–Even if she was simply making sure you were growing up properly and practicing safe sex, making a teenager more aware of their body than they want to be could make them self-conscious or cause body image problems. I feel she crossed the line after you drew it. But moms are only human too, bless them.

  • Bridget Givens

    Bridget Givens

    September 14th, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    If you’re going to talk to them about a sensitive subject, you need to say one thing to them to gain their trust. “What we say will not leave this room.” And mean it! Going back on what you promise your kids when they confide in you will do irreparable harm to your relationship. Even if it’s for their own good it will still rip it apart.

  • Emily Robb

    Emily Robb

    September 14th, 2011 at 8:51 PM

    @Bridget–Yes, well they could say that. Then again, that’s not a promise any responsible parent can make. By your logic, if my daughter tells me she’s bulimic or anorexic, I’ve not to get her help, right?

    Not a chance. She’d be straight to the doctor and into counseling before her feet could touch the ground. I’d face her wrath before I’d let her get sicker and do herself more-and permanent-damage.

    That’s what love is, not standing by as a parent because you’re scared of their reaction. True parental love is tough as nails and such parents are willing to do anything within their power that keeps their child safe and well, and teaches them how to cope out there in the world.

  • Conrad Crawford

    Conrad Crawford

    September 16th, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    Parents should learn to ask teenagers if they want to talk about it-unless you think they’re doing drugs or some such serious act, then by all means dive right in. If it’s not going to kill them or get them in prison, then it’s probably not a big enough deal to be aggressive and pushy over. You don’t have a right to know, contrary to popular belief.

    However if you build a good relationship with your teen, they will volunteer more information more often. Concentrate on that instead of being inquisitive.

  • camelman77

    camelman77

    September 20th, 2011 at 1:53 PM

    My stepson’s only answer when he is being confronted is “I don’t know.” He is extremely passive-aggressive and will do anything to get away when he does not want to explain his behavior. Overall he is a good kid, but he drives me nuts with IDK. If I ask him about molecular biology or nuclear physics, then I think “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonbale answer. But I have come to learn that it is the ONLY thing he is willing to say when it comes to issues like homework, chores, and bedtime. He absolutely refuses to admit when he is wrong; I have tried talking to him, and he responds with IDK or the thousand yard stare. Like most teenagers, he feels he shouldn’t be called out about anything at all, and these are his defense mechanisms he uses to wear me and his mom down. My wife is very protective of him, and he knows he can wear her down faster than me. He and I have been at odds because I see what he is doing, and I tell him so. Is it wrong of me to tell him how easy it is to read him? I do not want a bad relationship with him, but I am not going to back off when something needs to be addressed. Thoughts?

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