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On the Car Ride Home, My Son Just Wants to Be Left Alone

The car ride home from school with an adolescent boy. It’s an agonizing experience that strikes fear in the heart of even the most seasoned parent. The silence—the excruciatingly awkward, purposeful, eternal silence.

What does it MEAN? Is he depressed? What class is he failing? What is he hiding? Why does he hate me, and will we ever be close again? Inside you’re screaming “I just want to love you and know how your algebra test went!” It’s a mystery as old as adolescence itself: what does a teenage boy want from you on the ride home from school?

My husband usually picked our boys up from the Catholic high school they attended on his way home from work. Depending on traffic, it could take anywhere between twenty and forty-five minutes—and he often arrived home drenched in stress sweat. “The car ride home was SO AWFUL. No matter what I say, he either just grunts or gives the shortest answer he can. He’s not rude—he just has nothing to say or just doesn’t want to talk to me,” my husband would say. “It’s the most stressful part of my day.”

“Weird,” I would answer. “What do you talk about?”

“How was your geometry test? Did you remember to turn in that late English paper? How are midterms looking?”

And there you have it.

Drilling your son with questions on the ride home from school about the most stressful, difficult, tedious parts of his day isn’t going to make him bubble up with conversation.

He knows you want to hear that he crushed all of those tests. He can feel the academic pressure you don’t realize (or maybe you do, if you’re completely honest) that you’re applying. You’re asking him to sit through a job performance evaluation every time he gets in the car. Imagine riding home from work with your boss while they ask for status updates on every project that you are working on.

I’ve never been an adolescent boy, so I don’t know what’s going through that 15 or 16-year old brain. So I went straight to the experts for some real answers. And the answer I learned is shocking.

On the ride home from school, he just wants to be Left Alone.

It can’t be that simple, right? Perhaps all those after school specials we watched growing up have conditioned us to think that if your child comes home quiet and tired, something traumatic or damaging to his psyche MUST have happened. Or he’s lying about something, that sneaky little reprobate.

Well, no. As it turns out, it’s pretty basic. The experts I consulted (okay, my two sons) summarized it as follows: “When I get into the car at the end of a day at school, I am tired. I just want to go home. It’s been a really long, boring day. I sat in Government class, I took notes, then I went to another class I didn’t really want to go to. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. If something important or notable in any way happens at school, I will tell you. I promise.”

Oh. Well. Now that you mention it, I remember being exactly the same way when I was 15. Especially if you are an introvert, being “on” all day at school is mentally and emotionally exhausting. All you want is to get home, have a snack, and retreat to someplace quiet. When your parents invade your mental space too, it’s so much easier just to say “Nothing” or “Fine.”

How to Talk to Your Teenage Son on the Car Ride Home

So I became wise. Here are my four tips for talking to your teenage son, in the car or otherwise.

1. Cultivate an interest in his interests

I didn’t really care about the NBA, or English soccer clubs—but my oldest son does. If asking him whether LeBron really wants to become a free agent or is going to re-sign his contract animates him and gets him talking for fifteen minutes, it’s a win-win. I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy so I could talk to my younger son when I picked him up after his Tolkien club meetings on Monday afternoons. And surprisingly, their interests have expanded and enriched my world in ways I could never have predicted. It’s one of the best aspects of having kids. Now I LOVE Lord of the Rings.

2. Listen to music

Music is completely unrelated to academics, sports, or the upcoming SAT. My younger son and I would listen to a few songs on my Spotify playlist, then a few songs on his. He would make fun of mine (“You have the worst taste in music. No one has ever heard of Robbie Robertson.”), and I would reply “Kanye West is a talentless hack,” but we enjoyed the ride home together and each other’s company, even if we just listened in companionable silence.

3. Volunteer to give rides

Whenever my sons’ group of friends needed rides to movies, or home from a football game, I offered to drive. And then I sat back and listened while they talked. If you really want to learn anything about your son’s life at school, here’s how you find out.

4. Just chill

The car is such an inviting venue for those Very Important Talks (partially because they are captives) because you are both looking straight ahead and don’t have to make eye contact. If you can just wait for him to unwind mentally and resist the urge to bombard him with questions the second he gets in, the car can become a relaxing, unguarded space where he feels comfortable and at ease. And in my experience, your son will initiate those talks—but only if and when he has something he wants to talk about. Be patient and wait.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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