How to Get Your Teen to Stop Tuning You Out
When your teenager ignores you, it can be both sad and wildly frustrating. If you are in a situation where you just can’t connect with your child anymore, you might be wondering whether you’ve lost touch or are being unreasonable.
You’ve been here before: you’re trying to have a discussion with your teenager about curfew, or school, or absolutely anything—and it’s not getting through. They act like they don’t hear you or turn up their music so they actually can’t.
They turn everything into an argument or just roll their eyes and mumble “Whatever.” They won’t take their eyes off their phone.
At best, all you get out of them is a scoff or a grunt: no eye contact, no acknowledgment, and no hint of, “Yes, Mom/Dad, I get what you’re saying to me.”
So, why does your teenager ignore you? Sometimes teenagers are so wrapped up in their own world that they don’t even see you. In addition, tuning you out gives your teenager a sense of power. Teens know what gets you riled up.
When they ignore you, it makes them feel like they have some control in a situation where they may otherwise feel disempowered.
One of the few things they have complete power over is deciding what gets their attention. They ignore you because they can. They do it because you can’t make them listen.
The solution for parents is not to engage their teens in this battle at all. When you attempt to force them to behave differently, you’re accepting the power struggle they’ve created, and your teen will only resist more.
For example, if you allow the argument to become about their indifferent attitude, rather than about curfew rules, your teenager wins. They’ve successfully shifted your attention from the curfew issue (where they don’t have any power) and placed it into an area where they do have control: choosing not to pay attention to you.
If your teen can pull you into a battle of wills, they won’t have to listen to the rules. If your teenager avoids hearing you, they can always argue later that they didn’t know what the rules were. And if they weren’t listening, you can’t make them accept responsibility.
What was once a fun-loving, effusive child has now become someone closed off and fiercely protective of their self-sufficiency? How do you address this kind of situation, and how can you handle it meanwhile? Let’s discuss a few ideas:
Take A Moment to Observe
Let’s start with some perspective. This stage is natural for a teenager, and in all likelihood, you’re both going to come through it just fine.
Recognize that your teen isn’t intentionally trying to hurt you — they’re just acting their age, learning to flex their own sense of self in preparation for adulthood.
Remember that you’re a good, loving parent, not a failure, and try to act like one. Your child’s moody stage does not define your character or parenting skills in any way. You’re still the same parent you were before this, and you can get even better from here.
Since this is simply the age when some kids will start to ignore you, you’ll need to find ways around their lack of attention. Get creative with us, because this article is about to go somewhere!
Here’s the thing. Your kids experience the world in an entirely different way than you do as an adult. Remember when you were a teenager, and how different life seemed to you then? It isn’t a matter of one viewpoint being right or wrong. It’s just how things are.
Even individual adults have different ways of looking at the world around them, which affects our beliefs, our interpretations, and the way we live our lives. Remind yourself of this when you’re feeling frustrated or bewildered by your teen’s behavior.
It will help you keep an open mind and respond without losing your cool. When it comes to teenagers, that’s a win for everyone.
The next time you need to turn your teen away from one choice and toward one that you know is better for them, try to do it in a way that makes them feel able to choose the better option, instead of being forced to.
Nobody can really control another human being. When we try, it inevitably backfires. Over time, the relationship breaks down to the point where your teenager resents everything you say. You feel hated and disrespected. They say only the bare minimum to you and certainly don’t share their thoughts.
They essentially cut you off from their life.
You end up with no idea what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, or what input they do need from you. Even when weighing a major life decision, such as whether or not to have sex, your teenager will never ask for your guidance.
Does this sound familiar? Is it what you want your relationship with your child to be? No! You end up getting exactly what you don’t want, and what you fear the most.
Analyze Your Teen’s Behavior
So your teen is now ignoring you, and you’re feeling confused and irritated. Rather than getting angry, don your deerstalker hat and get out a magnifying glass, because now is the time to analyze the situation.
Start by searching for clues in your own home. How do you currently deal with your teen? Do you let them express their own views? Do you have an atmosphere at home where they feel safe to be themselves? Evaluate the environment in which your family lives.
Next, talk to your teenager. Are they going through something recently that’s causing them a lot of stress? Maybe they’re feeling hurt because they lost a friend, or bullying or class overload is making their school life tough. Talk, and more importantly, listen.
If they are reluctant at first, keep asking questions each day without being pushy, and they’ll most likely start to open up. They may be growing into their independence, but they still need you. Maintain open dialogue. It’s essential for trust.
Being a teenager isn’t easy. They feel grown up and ready to follow their own path but haven’t matured enough to realize they can’t handle everything alone. Some restrictions exist precisely because they are not adults.
Power struggles grow out of this dynamic.
Teenagers believe themselves larger than life, and you have to pull them down from the clouds.
In some cases, when this is an ongoing problem that existed prior to their tween/teen years, you may have to talk to your pediatrician and see if they can recommend a good family therapist.
Even if this is the case, it cannot hurt to try the following suggestions.
Get Your Teenager to Listen to You
Since acting indifferent and refusing to listen is common during the teenage years, how can you ever make sure that your kids will hear you?
One way to circumvent your teenager’s apparent sudden deafness is to act like they’re listening.
If you’re sure they don’t have a real hearing problem and they aren’t wearing headphones—and, of course, you’re speaking in a language which they understand—conclude that they can actually hear you.
Face towards them and explain, in clear speech at an audible but normal volume, what you expect from them. “If you want the car tomorrow morning, you need to be home by 9:00 tonight. I know you like to drive it to school, so make sure and be home on time.”
If he or she then comes in at five after 10:00, don’t scold them over how they didn’t listen. Simply say, “You’re late, so you can’t take the car tomorrow. I told you that this morning. You can try again tomorrow night.
Home by 9:00 and you can have the car on Wednesday.” Don’t let yourself get drawn into a battle of wills with your teenager. If they throw a fit or try to distract you from the point, calmly reiterate the rule and then leave the room.
That’s the whole idea.
By sidestepping the argument over communication (or the lack of it), you can stay focused on what you want to say and make your expectations clear. Speak plainly and directly, even when your kid won’t look up from their phone or give you eye contact.
Then assume they’re aware of the rule and hold them to it. Don’t get into a debate about whether they really heard you—that detracts from the real issue and is not a debate that either of you can win.
If you find that every time you enforce your wishes, your child protests that they didn’t hear you, then is the time to talk about awareness and finding ways for them to pay better attention.
Even then, remember to stay calm, listen well, and stick to enforcing whatever solution the two of you come up with.
Create a System of Actions and Results
One of the most vital things you can do is to hold your teenager accountable for their actions. In the adult world, all actions have consequences, whether good or bad. Don’t only address negative behavior; reinforce good choices by rewarding the positive. Remember that your actions have repercussions too—don’t let your emotions control what you say or do. Keep your cool and only fight the battles that are truly important. Think this through ahead of time, and when a punishment or other consequence comes due, don’t back down from it. Remain firm.
This is one of the best ways to keep your teenager in line. Rather than nagging your child about what they should do, let them know that you’re going to ask once, and then it’s up to them to avoid a bad result. If they don’t complete their chores then they can’t go out with their friends after school, or whatever consequence you decide is appropriate. This is a useful strategy because it gives them responsibility and power over their own life, and is simple to adjust to your particular teen.
You can say something like, “I’m okay with telling you to do this once, but after that, [insert consequence here].” This way it’s friendly, it’s honest, and it’s also firm and unchanging. They know what is expected of them. You only need to say it once instead of asking a million times. The result will follow because you’ve already informed them. They can’t be righteously angry because they knew what the outcome would be.
Reward good behavior! When your teenager exceeds expectations or does something positive without being asked, show them some gratitude. When they act with responsibility and respect, let them know it’s appreciated.
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Be Clear About Your Expectations
Make sure your teen knows what is expected of them. We’ve already basically covered this topic, but it’s an important one, so we decided to dig a little deeper.
Sit them down and spell out your expectations. No hesitation or backtracking. It may not work right away because kids can be forgetful. Don’t react with anger.
You may have to remind them beforehand the first few times the situation crops up, just as a refresher. Keep trying, and your teen will get it unless they’re stuck in total defiance. We‘ll talk a bit about that in the next segment.
Keep Your Emotions in Check
It can be difficult to resist going off the rails when your teen is being outright defiant, but you need to remain calm, relaxed, and collected. When they disobey you, scream at you, or pretend they don’t hear, realize that it’s their attempt to gain some power at the moment.
Remember that a war of wills or a shouting match will only make your situation worse. Even when you’re angry, remain calm and state only the facts. If your child starts to draw you into a fight, turn and leave. You don’t have to fight every battle you’re invited to.
If one person loses their cool, the other will usually react the same way. Getting angry and having a war with your child can only make things worse. It may feel right to blow up at the time, but if at all possible, do not give in.
If you have to step away and take a breather, do it. A calm mind is a clearer one. Better to let the matter wait a while than to lose control.
If your teen starts throwing attitude and trying for an argument, stay focused on the original issue. Don’t be swayed into disagreements over your child’s arguments about fairness. When you allow your rules to be argued over, you’re letting your teen believe they can be changed.
Stick to the facts instead: “I know you don’t like these rules and you don’t want to hear about them. It’s not necessary for you to like them. They are what they are, and all you have to do is follow them.”
Always stay calm, keep your mind on the original topic, and don’t let yourself be distracted by disagreement or bad behavior.
Your teen is very aware that all the rolling of the eyes, sour muttering, and attitude threw your way is infuriating.
They’re usually doing it intentionally. The more you try and force them to pay attention and acknowledge your authority, the harder they’ll work to tune you out. Don’t go down that road. Remember: power struggles are a waste of time.
If your child goes beyond ignoring you and begins to yell or throw insults, it becomes even more vital to maintain your own self-control.
As James Lehman states in his well-known behavioral course, The Total Transformation Program, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” You don’t need to engage your teen if they’re being verbally abusive. It’s better to remain calm and say:
We’re going to come back to this when you can get control of yourself. Speaking like that to me or anyone else is unacceptable, and the rules will not change because you yelled at me.
Hearing Your Teenager’s Perspective
Remember “Children should be seen and not heard?” That’s some pretty bad advice. When you listen to what your teen has to say, it makes them feel respected and understood. This will make them respect you more, which in turn will make them more likely to listen to you.
Your teenager needs to be able to trust you. They need you to respect them as fellow human beings. One day, not too far in the future, our children will be leaders in society. If they’ve never been permitted to share their ideas or state their opinions, what kind of leaders can they really be?
Kids may not consciously remember you listening or reaching out to support them, but you can be sure they’ll internalize the knowledge that you can be trusted with their feelings and thoughts about the world surrounding them.
Communicating With Your Teen Via Messaging
Some people swear by parenting via text. Some parents have entire serious conversations with their kids via text. You may sometimes feel that if it wasn’t for text messages, you’d never get to talk to your teenager at all.
Though it’s true that messaging can be an excellent way to stay in touch with your teenager, it’s important to have your most critical conversations face to face. Reserve the work of explaining rules, consequences, and expectations for when you and your child are in the same room.
As much as possible, save phone communication for simpler messages—an encouragement or a quick reminder such as,
Hey, I know you wanted the car tomorrow morning, so remember to be back home by 9.
This is a much better use of texting than risking a big long argument with your teenager over the phone. It’s too easy to misinterpret meaning and tone in a text, never mind claims (true or false) of not having gotten a particular message.
The bottom line is that you should use text messaging as a way to reinforce the rules, not as a way to discuss them.
Get the Right Message Across
Honestly, there are times when you are just not going to win. Sometimes you need to let the battle go. Life is busy with children, and sometimes things that seem vital need to be evaluated and seen for what they are: Unimportant.
If your teenager’s physical safety is threatened, you can’t take any chances. It’s necessary to keep them from being harmed. Apart from that, I encourage you to take a different approach.
You should certainly inform your teen of what you feel is safest, most responsible, and smartest for them to do. However, the only reason you should demand, threaten, or try to force them to fit your mold is if you want to end up pushing them away.
What, then, is left to do? From now on, when planning what to say to your teen and how you’re going to say it, consider whether this interaction will pull them closer to you, or push him away. Always choose to pull closer.
The only way to genuinely influence a teenager is when he or she trusts you and wants to make you proud. Can you remember one instance where someone forcing you to do something added to your respect or trust for them or motivated you to please them? Precisely!
It will feel scary to give up the tight grip on your child, but the truth is that the grip isn’t working. When something doesn’t work, the wise move is to try something new. If you aren’t certain where to start, try total honesty.
There’s a lot to be said for being truthful about our limitations and imperfections.
Tell your teen that you want to apologize and talk to them, and ask them when a good time would be. Then open up your true feelings. You might say something like the following.
I love you so much, and all I’ve ever wanted for you was what’s best. I know that no matter how hard I try, I’m not perfect. We hardly talk anymore. I barely know what’s going on in your life. I know that a lot of it is my own fault, but I miss you. I want to be present in your life, and if that means I need to change the way I treat you, then I’m more than willing.
From now on I’ll explain what I’d like you to do, I’ll tell you why, and then I’ll trust you to make your own decision about it. You’re old enough to choose how to behave, and to accept whatever consequences come. I know you can make smart choices if you try.
“We’re still going to have certain rules in the house, which are [the minimum rules you need in place]. Otherwise, it’s up to you. I love you, I trust you, and from today on I’m giving you the freedom to make the wise choices I know you can.”
One final caution. Once you’ve said this to your teen, you will need to be prepared to follow through on it.
This will almost certainly be nerve-wracking to do. It may feel like you no longer have any say in your child’s life and are going to lose them entirely.
Try to keep an open mind and consider this. By fixing and strengthening your relationship with your teenager, which cannot be done by controlling them, you are much more likely to gain the influence in their life that you desired.
When your relationship with your teenager is terrible, no matter how hard you try to rein them in, you’ll never have any real influence.
When it’s strong and healthy, they will grow to value your guidance and allow you to be part of their world. That should be your final goal. That kind of relationship is what you want to have.
At Never the Right Word, our aim is to give you practical examples of how to handle life’s difficult conversations. If you have an awkward situation that you’d like example templates for, request a topic here.
Lastly, if you found this content helpful or want to share your own examples, let us know in the comments. We’d also be delighted if you shared this article and joined us on social media too!
Never the Right Word
Hi there! I’m Amy, and I’m the person behind Never the Right Word. I’m a designer-by-day who’s fascinated by human psychology; you’ll find me learning about what makes others tick through all types of media and good old-fashioned conversation. Learn more about me here.
In 2019 Never the Right Word was born to fill the gap of ‘how-to’ websites with copy and paste examples showing you EXACTLY what you need to say to steer difficult conversations into positive outcomes.
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