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Talking to Kids Who Don’t Want to Talk to You

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Talking to Kids Who Don’t Want to Talk to You

Feb 25, 2014

It happens to every parent. They’re your biggest fans until one day you start getting the short one-word answers to every question you ask. You try and try, but can’t seem to get through to your child. Psychiatrist Dr. Matt Woolley talks about why the change in mood and attitude happens in kids and whether it’s normal or something parents should be concerned about. He also discusses ways you can relate to kids who simply just doesn't want to talk to you.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you could use for a happier and healthier life, you're listening to the Scope.

Interviewer: Does this sound familiar, you ask you kid how was your day? They go, Fine, what did you learn in school? Nothing. How can you relate to your kids, it seems there's a certain point where you're no longer the center of the universe, they're not answering your questions. I'm here with Dr. Matt Woolly, Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah. Relating to kids that just don't want to talk to you, is there anything that can be done?

Dr. Woolly: This is something that parents bring up to me all the time. You have your cute little guys and gals, and they come home from school, elementary school, tell you all about their day, and then they hit about fifth or sixth grade, they get into that prepubescent time and they kind of start shutting down, they don't share much. The fine and the good and those [inaudible 00:50].

Interviewer: Why is that? What's going on there?

Dr. Woolly: Well some of it's just biological, emotional, they're changing, they're dealing with...

Interviewer: So it's just normal?

Dr. Woolly: Yeah, it's very much normal.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr.Woolly: It's to be expected, there are some kids that make it all through you know, adolescence, and they're still a chatterbox, and they maintain that relationship with parents, that's unusual though.

Interviewer: Okay.

Mr. Woolly: This is a time where up until puberty is a time where the child has seen mom and dad, and the structure of the home as the most important thing on earth to them. Quite literally, a switch flips in their brain as they get into puberty, and they start to see the world in a more abstract way, and all of a sudden things outside the family including friends start to become very, very important to them. And getting that feedback and that acceptance from friends, and exploring ideas outside of the family are developmentally normal and appropriate, right?

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Woolly: Then by the time the late teens, early 20's roll around there's this kind of rejoining where you can now, mom and dad are not as dumb as I used to think they were, and I see the value in that relationship, but I've also developed this other sense of who I am, and so that's maybe something that relates, or doesn't relate at all to the family, but I'm okay with that. And so they blend both and you have this young adult self identity.

Interviewer: So is it important during that kind of period where they lose identity with the family to even maintain it?

Dr. Woolly: Absolutely.

Interviewer: So it is important.

Dr. Woolly: Yeah.

Interviewer: You should.

Dr. Woolly: Yeah..

Interviewer: Even though it's natural, you need to try to fight it a little bit.

Dr. Woolly: Well, you need to know how to deal with it. I don't know that we want to fight it, we want to accept the fact that that's important. We all went through it, and if you didn't go through it you're either; A in denial or B; one of those unusual cases that I was just talking about. But we all found other things to be really important, whether it was sports, or art, or music, friends became very important, wanting to spend time with friends was much more enticing then going to a movie with mom and dad when you're 13, and just hanging out was a big deal. So parents want to know, how do I relate to my child? Often time we try the same old things we did when they were younger, we just keep asking. You know, we just keep pushing it.

Interviewer: And that's annoying.

Dr. Woolly: It is annoying, and often we get a pretty heavy push back from them, or...

Interviewer: And a sigh.

Dr. Woolly: And a sigh, and you don't get me and all that kind of moody stuff. And so we can kind of get stuck in this no-man's land. So what I recommend is entertainment, so the idea is that children are going through an immense amount of development trying to understand who they are, and they're kind of up and down emotionally, and they want to feel good about themselves at that age. That's why when you're a kid you might start to identify with being a rock-star and you get a guitar, and you learn to play it, or being an athlete or being an academic person learning all there is to know about science, or whatever it happens to be. But the idea is content, what are they interested in? And as a parent do you know what your child's interested in? If your child is really into a particular form of entertainment before you start to worry too much about do, I need to limit that entertainment, which you know, you may. But ask them, "Tell me about that", use open ended questions. So for example, kind of back to the movie aspect; if you're child saw a movie, you took them to it, or they saw it with their friends, you might say, "Tell me about that movie, what did you like about it?" Get them talking about it, ask them who their favorite characters were, and then you, if you don't know who that character is you might need to go hit the internet and do a little research. Well, what is it about that character maybe that my child likes? You can even ask them, they often won't know though, that's the interesting thing, they'll just relate to and identify with particular characters, because of the qualities that those characters in the books, movies, or video games have. And that can tell you a little bit about where you're child's at.
Now, some of it may seem kind of generic, but the more you do this, this isn't a one-time activity, this is called being involved, so you're going to do this on all of those different levels, and by doing it, it gives you a little bit of a window, an insight into maybe what they are thinking about, what they're feeling about themselves, what they're struggling with. And it gives you a little bit of a platform to then maybe be present in their life, because even though the children are pulling away during those years, it doesn't mean they devalue completely what parents have to offer, it's just they're not needed every day like they wanted and needed it when they were younger. If you start to use this, you get this consistent window and insight, it also might help you know if you're concerned, if they're a withdrawn teenager, if they're kind of down and depressed. This gives you an avenue to talk to them about the characters and the themes in the stories that they like. And that might help you make decisions about whether your child needs some professional input, or if your child just is going through a difficult time, or just exploring identities about who they are. Are they focused on being the hero? Are they focused on being the loyal friend?
I had a conversation once with a kid who had just seen this movie, he wanted to know if I had ever seen it before, it was called "Star Wars, A New Hope." You know this is a kid, I think he was about 13, 12 maybe 12 turning 13, I said," So what did you like about it?" And he went and talked about how cool it was, and so I asked him, "If you, you know, what was your favorite character? If you had to say what your favorite character was" he said "Obi Wan, Kenobi" I was really surprised, and I said "Really? Tell me more about that, why are you so excited about, or why do you identify with Obi Wan Kenobi?" And he couldn't give me a great answer, but he kind of stammered a little bit about how Obi Wan knew everything, and Obi Wan was helpful, and Obi Wan could guide Luke. The interesting thing here about this boy is that he's also somebody who's a little bit without a guide in his life. And so it was interesting to me, it provided some insight to me as a therapist well what do I need to be doing, what sorts of themes are important to him? I made the mistake of assuming that like most boys his age he'd want to be Luke Skywalker.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Woolly: He probably wouldn't turn that down if it was offered to him, but the character he most identified with was the wise old sage.

Interviewer: So what did you take away from that, how did that change how you related to this?

Dr. Woolly: Well, to be honest it allowed me to have that little bit of insight into his psyche, and what was going on for him emotionally.

Interviewer: So is he saying he misses that, is that what he's saying do you think?

Dr. Woolly: Well see, that's the funny thing, we assume like, the kids can describe things like adults. We have to respect the fact that they have to project some of their unconscious needs, drives and desires out onto things like powerful things in their environment like characters. That's a simple way that a parent, what I did in the session is exactly what a parent could do at home.

Interviewer: So it sounds kind of brilliant on a couple of levels. First of all you're probably not going to get anywhere if you're directly asking a child how are you feeling, what are you thinking? And so you do it indirectly, through these characters, and you also play a little bit of detective by picking out what kind of content they're consuming, what they're relating to, and then that gives you insight, because they would never tell you if you asked them, they probably couldn't.

Dr. Woolly: They wouldn't and they most likely couldn't. This is an opportunity to understand and relate to your children, and perhaps provide them some guidance when needed.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is the " Scope", University of Utah Health Sciences radio.