This mother is not alone in her frustration. Many parents know about the walls teenagers sometimes build. These walls seem high and impenetrable. Some even appear to be covered with barbed wire and jolted with high-voltage electricity. Yet, walls can come down, as evidenced by the famous dismantling of a wall in Berlin, Germany.
The Berlin Wall was nearly fourteen feet high, covered with barbed wire, and plastered with “Stay Away” signs. It was built to keep people isolated. But it couldn’t last forever, and in 1989, the wall that had separated families and friends for so long was torn down. On Brad’s desk is a little chunk of that wall—a small piece of concrete with an inch-long piece of barbed wire. The concrete has some faded colors on one side. It may seem like a strange choice for a desktop decoration, but it serves as a reminder that even the highest and most formidable walls built to keep people separated can come down.
Sometimes teenagers build invisible walls around themselves. They may build them for protection, or perhaps because of feelings of insecurity, distrust, fear, or misunderstanding. How can parents most effectively penetrate such barriers? How do we talk to teens who don’t particularly want to talk to us? How do we make ourselves into the kind of people our children will open up to? We must first see beyond the wall and then find the loose brick.
Some teenagers wear extreme hairstyles, torn jeans, long chains, and baggy t-shirts. Some have tattoos and use vulgar words and gestures. Others are well-groomed but act cocky, rude, and defiant. Still others seem distant and unmotivated. In all of these cases, adults receive strong signals that seem to say, “Leave me alone and stay out of my life.” We must see beyond the façade.
Teenagers’ emotions and needs are usually expressed in coded messages—secret codes, if you will—that we must receive and interpret. It’s really nothing new. Remember when your children were babies? They cried, and you didn’t know why. You tried changing them; still they cried. You tried feeding them, rocking them. You thought, “I can’t figure these kids out! I wish they could just talk to me and tell me what they want!”
Now those little ones are teenagers, and they are still playing the same game. They no longer need a diaper change or bottle. They need security, acceptance, attention, and positive feedback. But they don’t voice those needs any more clearly now than when they were babies. They just give you the signals and expect you to figure out what they need. In their own way, your teens are still crying. Only now, the tears are inside.
Kenneth Cope once wrote a song about those silent tears. The first lines say, “There’s a cry in the night as another life begins. Tiny one pleads for love today.” Kenneth’s lyrics then describe how children grow and their cries turn inward. Our favorite line in the song is a question: “Can wounds concealed be recognized?” It is up to us to “hear them cry the tears they hide. Love means time. Hear them cry.”
“Do you love me? Do you care? Am I a priority in your life? Such questions rarely come directly from teenagers, but they do come indirectly. Often, the most important part of communication is being able to hear what isn’t being said. Just as all parents struggle to interpret the cries of babies, we have to do a lot of guessing, testing, and putting ourselves in teenagers’ shoes to begin to understand their unspoken messages. What are they feeling from behind their walls? Are they feeling insecure, ugly, untalented, stupid, scared, lonely, rejected, frustrated, or vulnerable? Here are some of the clues that help us look beyond the walls and hear teenagers crying.
Creating distance. If teenagers pull away from the family and appear to be vague, withdrawn, or evasive, it is often a silent cry. When they don’t look us in the eyes when we are talking or they avoid us when we are coming in their direction, we know there are tears falling inside. Of course, the natural reaction is to also pull back and tell ourselves, “I know when I’m not wanted,” or “If that’s how she feels about me, then I won’t push myself into her life,” or “If he’s not going to talk to me, then I won’t talk to him.” We must fight this natural tendency. We need to act rather than react to our teenagers.
One father, who has reared ten sons and three daughters, described how he searched for answers when one of his teenage sons became distant: “The greatest revelation I got from all the reading I did was this simple but profound thought: whether my son spoke to me or not didn’t change the fact that I could speak to him. Even if it was just one-way communication, at least he’d know how I felt. And I felt that this would keep the channels open so that he would always know that I would be there if he needed me.” This father approached his son and said, “I know a little bit about what you’re going through. I just want you to know that I know you can do it, that I love you and have confidence in you.” The boy didn’t respond, but he heard. The father didn’t follow his natural tendency to pull away from his son; instead, he kept communication open and was able to show his son that he cared about him. The father acted.
Adolescents, however, find it difficult to know how to act. Are they supposed to be big children or little adults? Moping around and pulling away are ways some teenagers mentally try on new roles to see how they fit. When this happens, hear them cry.
Extreme behavior. Teenagers who tend to be either extremely quiet or extremely loud are trying to communicate something from behind the wall. “That kid is so cocky. He needs a good humbling,” or “She’s really shy, don’t bother talking to her,” we might say when, in reality, both teens need just the opposite—to be built up and validated. Pretended pride or shyness is nothing more than a strategy teens use because inside they are feeling small, passed over, unimportant, or envious of others.
Teenagers who are extremely judgmental and can’t find one good thing to say about any other person are probably trying desperately to find one good thing they like about themselves. Hear them cry.
“I have a friend who . . .” Jerrick remembers a time when he came home from school and told his parents, “I have a friend who really wants to go watch a movie that might have some bad things in it, but he says it’ll be OK if he just closes his eyes. What would you say to him?”
Rather than saying something like, “I’d probably tell you to go find another friend,” or making quick judgments about this “friend,” Jerrick’s parents listened to him explain the entire situation. True, Jerrick’s friend was thinking about going to that movie, but so was he. He knew that he shouldn’t view what might be on the movie screen because it violated family rules, but he thought it might be OK if he just closed his eyes. Instead of directly asking his parents if that was OK, Jerrick asked about his friend to discover how his parents would respond.
Whenever a child tells you about “my friend’s” problem, there is a good chance that child is struggling with a similar one. Young people drop hints about “friends” to test our reactions. If we are hasty and harsh, they may not want to open up any further. Hold off on judgments long enough to hear them cry.
Nonverbal signals. Very little of what a person says is with words. Most of our communication comes through body language. Our tone of voice also sends untold messages to the listener. Thus, it is important for parents to learn to listen with their eyes and hearts as well as with their ears. In short, we must be aware that teenagers’ true attitudes and feelings are usually expressed through gestures, posture, rate of speech, voice tone, volume, and eye placement.
We need to notice the expression on their faces, the look in their eyes, and the way they hold their heads. We can detect boredom, hostility, or fatigue by simply observing the fidgeting of their legs and the movement of their hands. Watch carefully for nonverbal signals. Hear them cry.
Seeking attention. With children, overtly negative behavior is often just a ploy to attract attention. The same thing is true of teenagers. Childish pranks like giggling at inappropriate times and pulling hair give way to swearing, extreme styles of clothing, body piercings, offensive hand motions, outlandish hairstyles, and tattoos. All such overt behavior is sending the same message: “Pay attention to me. Please notice me as an individual and appreciate the fact that I am different.”
When teenagers make rash statements such as “I hate school” or “My teacher is an idiot,” they often just want someone to notice they are frustrated. We must be careful not to take at face value the “wrong” things young people do or say. In such situations, young people may not feel unsure about what is “right” so much as they feel unsure about themselves. Hear them cry.
Inconsistent behavior. Any difference between usual behavior and current behavior is often a cry for help. One girl who consistently did well in school suddenly started missing the bus. When her mom would ask her if she was ready to go, the girl would say, “I’m coming.” Then she’d wait around until she missed the bus and her mother had to take her to school.
“The mother tried to reason with her daughter, telling her, “This is ridiculous. You’re a mature, responsible person. You shouldn’t need to be babied along in the morning.” The girl agreed and caught the bus the next few days. Then she began missing it again. The mother said, “This is not like you. I have always been able to count on you. If you miss the bus again, I’ll take you, but you’ll have to pay me.”
The following morning, the mother ended up having to drive the girl to school. When they arrived, she said, “That will be three dollars and a thank-you.”
The girl blew up. “Taxi drivers don’t get thanked!” she said indignantly.
The mother drove away from the school with her daughter still in the car. At last, she had heard her daughter’s cries. The mother said, “We need to talk.” The girl finally admitted she was having a hard time in her first-period class. She did not understand the teacher and was feeling stupid. There were also some boys in that class who were teasing her. Now mother and daughter were finally addressing the real problems, which had very little to do with catching a school bus. When teenagers’ behavior is inconsistent, hear them cry. After hearing them cry, we must then find the “loose brick” in the walls they’ve built around themselves.
“The thing about my mom that I love is that she likes what I like, even though she’s old,” a teenager explained. “She doesn’t think that what I like is stupid or just some passing fad. She doesn’t say my tastes are immature.”
Brad’s friend who had worked in construction once taught him a valuable principle about breaking down walls when he stated, “Having laid a few brick walls in my time, I have discovered that every wall has a weakness, a brick that is loose.”
When we work with young people who have built walls around themselves, we must find the loose brick—the one favorite interest, dream, or ability that will help that teen open up. It may be motorcycles, sports, food, the opposite sex, or even a journal.
One young man from New York who attended a week-long youth program on the west coast stayed to himself at first. His youth counselor was concerned and told the program director, “He just stays in his room and writes in his journal.” Was this the loose brick the director needed?
That evening at dinner, the director purposely sat by the young man in the cafeteria. He began a normal conversation and then changed the subject to journals. The director said, “People don’t usually believe me when I say it, but one of my favorite things to do is to write in my journal. I’ve already filled many volumes.”
“Really?” The boy’s eyes lit up. “I write in my journal, too. I think it’s important.” That was a turning point. The young man began to come to activities and to interact with the director and others. Before the week ended, he had made many new friends. It all started when someone showed a little interest in his big interest.
During Jerrick’s freshman year of high school, he developed a serious stomach illness that baffled his doctors. They weren’t sure why he was feeling so sick, but they were determined to find the cause. Jerrick was put through many different tests to rule out certain diseases.
The day before one of those tests—a colonoscopy—Jerrick was feeling particularly nervous. Considering a test like that, who wouldn’t be? After an entire day of eating nothing but plain yellow Jell-O, chicken broth, and yummy magnesium citrate, his nerves were completely on edge. Normally, he’d play sports or eat ice cream to calm himself, but those options weren’t available, so he went downstairs and started to play billiards—a game he loved—by himself.
A few minutes later, his dad came downstairs and started to play with him. After a couple questions, Jerrick opened up to his dad about what he was feeling at the time. Jerrick would never have spoken with his dad about his fears if his dad had not been willing to come downstairs and play billiards.
A teacher once attended a farewell party for a former student who was going off to college. The young man looked ready for college. He had new clothes and his hair had been cut just the day before. He was smiling confidently. His parents knew that the boy’s lifestyle hadn’t always been as neat as his hair was now. He was never a bad kid. He hadn’t done anything terribly wrong. But the boy had withdrawn from everyone and had certainly ruled out ever attending college. It seemed as if no one could reach him. Then the teacher had come into his life and finally gotten through the wall.
Later, the parents asked the teacher how he had successfully reached this young man who had managed to distance himself so completely from everyone else. Had the teacher shared a special story or personal experience? Had he carried on long and in-depth talks with the boy? The teacher only smiled and said, “You’ll never believe it, but one day I found out your boy likes reruns of the same old TV show I like. Your son would come up to me after class to discuss the show. He would bring me information about how much some of the old props and costumes were being auctioned for and where all those old actors are now.” The teacher had stumbled upon the loose brick. Then he worked at it until he opened a space in the wall of isolation around the young man.
After Brad talked at a parent conference about finding the loose brick, a mother approached Brad and said, “But there is no way to reach my daughter. She simply does not have any loose bricks—a few loose screws, maybe, but no loose bricks.”
“Sure she does,” Brad assured her. “What does she talk about or bring up in conversation?”
“What does she do in her free time if she can choose?”
“Nothing. She just goes to school and works.”
“Then what does she do with the money she earns?”
“She buys lots of clothes,” the mother answered, rolling her eyes.
Brad smiled at her and said, “Guess what you just found.”
Three questions: What does your teenager talk most about? What does your teenager do or want to do with free time? Where does your teenager put his or her own money? Answers to these can help us locate that loose brick. Then it is just a matter of spending the time required to push and pull at it until we break through.
A woman learned how important it is to see beyond the wall and find the loose brick when her daughter was fifteen years old. That summer, her daughter attended a state-run camp in California, a camp she had looked forward to all year. But after she came home, this mother noticed a big change in her daughter. She was more distant from the family. Her moods were extreme. She wasn’t taking care of her appearance, which was inconsistent for her.
At the time, the woman did not recognize the cries she was hearing. She didn’t think of approaching her daughter to talk. Problems continued, and finally she knew that she needed to do something about it.
One evening, her daughter went babysitting and left her journal open by the front door. That was not like her at all. The woman picked it up and began to read. The more she read, the more horrified she became. A camp mentor with whom her daughter had been corresponding was participating in some illegal activities and inviting the girl to join her. This woman said, “I cannot tell you what I felt at that time. I took the journal and showed my husband. He was irate that this mentor had been allowed to work with young girls at the camp. He wanted the people responsible to realize what was happening.”
In the meantime, the woman didn’t know what to do about her daughter. She talked with her dearest friends. They all advised her to seek professional help. She went to three different psychologists until she found the one who gave her the advice that really made sense to her.
The counselor told the woman that she had to talk with her daughter openly about the whole thing. Nothing could have been more frightening for her. It seemed much easier to just keep going through her mothering motions as if nothing were wrong. The counselor told her that she had to be honest with her daughter and even tell her she had read her journal.
The next day, the woman sat down with her daughter and told her everything. Her daughter was absolutely devastated that her mother had violated her privacy.
This concerned mother simply said, “The friend you are writing to is on the wrong track. She is much older than you, and I feel very strongly that staying friends with her is dangerous for you.”
Her daughter ran out of the room in tears. Easy experience? No. Fun? No. Necessary? Yes. Did the woman handle it the way she should? She didn’t know. She was simply doing the best she knew how.
In the days that followed, the counselor advised her to spend more time bonding with her daughter. She had raised her daughter the same way she had raised her son, and now she realized that certain children need more love and attention. She thought that perhaps because she didn’t give her daughter all the love she needed, her daughter was searching elsewhere for a sense of belonging. The counselor told her not to blame herself, but instead to try to communicate, to let her daughter talk, and then to listen to her.
The woman didn’t know where to begin. She did not think about loose bricks at the time. She felt overwhelmed by the task ahead of her. “My teenage daughter hated me so much,” she said. “I can still feel the horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about it. It is such a hopeless feeling when your own child hates you.”
She knew her daughter didn’t care to be with her right then, but she also knew that her daughter was fifteen and cared a lot about being in a car. She told her, “OK, you want to learn to drive a car, right? I’ll pick you up after school every day so you can practice.”
Each afternoon, this mother would pick up her daughter, who would climb into the car, slam the door, and not say a word. The mom would let her practice driving a while, and then she would say, “I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Would you mind if we stop at the bakery for a bagel?”
Day after day, they would sit in the bakery, eating their bagels in silence. Eventually, her daughter started talking. She would tell her mother about her day. Then she started telling her mother about the things that were going on in her life. It took almost the entire year, but things did start to get better. This woman had to give up some control in exchange for some trust, but it was worth it.
Many years later, the woman’s daughter went on to graduate from high school and was preparing to go out of state for college. The two of them sat on the floor of the bedroom and packed. The daughter came across her old journals. She opened one and read to her mother all the things she had been going through during that dark time in her life. She confessed that she had even considered committing suicide. She looked at her mother and said, “Mom, I’m so glad I didn’t do that. I’m so glad we became friends.”
When trying to connect with teenagers, you’ll notice they can put up walls that seem as impenetrable as the hedgehog’s quills. Rather than wearing gloves, you need to connect with and address the hedgehog directly; and rather than avoiding confrontation, we need to hear the cries of your teenagers early. Find the loose brick—the one thing teenagers want to do or to talk about enough that they will even put up with having you there. Then listen carefully, communicate openly, and be there for them. You’ll be surprised what they will say to you, what they can teach you, and how well they’ll respond to even your most awkward efforts.
How can you hear and respond to your teenager’s silent cries? How can you get through to him or her? Here are some questions to consider:
○ Looking back on your own life, what type of walls have you put up? How could people have seen beyond those walls?
○ What are some of your teenager’s hobbies or favorite things? How can you show more interest in those hobbies? How can you also learn to value those favorite things?
You've been reading an excerpt from Brad Wilcox and Jerrick Robbins’ How to Hug a Hedgehog.