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4 Ways to Improve Mother-Daughter Relationships

Dear Your Teen:

My 15-year-old-daughter won’t talk to me! What should I do?

Expert | Stephanie Newman, Ph.D.

As a psychologist/psychoanalyst and author who writes about relationship issues and does a lot of parenting work in my private practice, I am often asked what to do when kids are uncommunicative.

When teens go silent, the sting of rejection feels personal. Their stonewalling and need for space usually reflect an internal struggle. I know it can feel so personal, but it’s likely not about you at all. Fifteen-year-olds work overtime to figure out who they are, navigating questions of identity and social minefields, juggling classes and extracurricular activities, and balancing moods and hormonal shifts—all while attempting to establish autonomy and separate emotionally from parents. This striving towards independence can leave us feeling like personae non gratae.

But don’t be fooled; despite closed doors and curled lips, teens crave parental approval. And how you approach them makes a difference in keeping the peace during daily interactions.

“My Daughter Doesn’t Like Me!” Tips for Engaging a Silent Teen

Your previously communicative and chatty kid has turned into Marcel Marceau?  

They are not the first, and you’ll get through it. Keep in mind the following suggestions for opening the lines of communication:

1. Let them come to you

The days of open-ended, seamless, heart-to-hearts are behind you. Your 15-year-old won’t engage just because you happen to feel like chatting. Expect confidences to flow at odd hours, say, the moment your eyes begin to droop—that’s the moment your teen will unburden themself. Go with it.

2. Let your teen choose the mode of communication

Texting slows us down and we miss eye contact, but it’s likely your kid’s go-to during charged moments and times of need.

3. Resist the urge to ask direct questions

Even though the thought of being taken into your teen’s confidence leaves you in a state of high alert, this is not a courtroom cross examination. Instead of trial attorney, think friendly audience member. Questions feel intrusive to teenagers who prefer a less intense vibe.

4. Don’t judge

Remember how much you hated it when your parents criticized your choices? Unless there’s a safety or significant values issue, consider letting it be. Neutral responses are a good fallback when you can’t offer positive feedback.

STILL WORRIED?

Say your 15-year-old walks in after classes and after-school commitments and goes straight to their room. You knock. They ignore you or growl that it’s a bad time. You might have to open the door. (Minors need privacy but parental access for safety check-ins is a necessity. This means no locks or blockading). Once you’re in, ignore the eye rolls and attitude.

Now’s the time to breathe in and channel your most patient self. Strike a gentle, non-intrusive tone and non-threatening presence to show you’re there. Some things you can say include:

  • “Is everything ok?”
  • “Sorry you are so upset. Maybe it would be helpful to talk?”
  • “I can see how hard this is. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

AND STILL …

Gentle presence and repeated attempts to connect may still fail. If your child absolutely stonewalls you, it’s probably best to step back and try again later. Just make sure there is a later time. Teens will create distance; this is common adolescent behavior. 

But there are circumstances during which you must not give them any leeway. If you suspect your child is in a fragile state, their health or well-being in jeopardy—think radical changes in mood or appearance, completely different friend group, or no friends at all, concerning use of substances, problems eating or sleeping—seek help from a licensed therapist, clergyperson, or counselor. If your teen tells you they have thoughts of suicide, get immediate professional assistance (Suicide Prevention Hotline 800 273- 8255).

Conversations with teenagers don’t always proceed the way we hope they will. Emotional connection isn’t achieved only through lengthy conversation; it can occur during an emotionally significant, shared moment. Resonating with the hurt or sadness and connecting momentarily will be more meaningful and satisfying than forcing a conversation with a reluctant 15-year-old.

Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Dr. Stephanie Newman is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst, author, and adjunct faculty member at Columbia University who works with parents in private practice and often fields questions about adolescent struggles for autonomy. (Find her at https://psychotherapistnextdoor.com)

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