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On Parenting | Perspective

Am I an awful parent for not trying to engage my teen in conversation in the car?

By Meghan Leahy

September 12, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Q: My spouse and I are at odds about how to manage our 13-year-old daughter while driving her to activities. These trips can take 30 to 45 minutes each way. My spouse insists that time should be used for "positive engagement," so the radio should be off and we should find ways to have conversations. I'm not very comfortable with this and neither is our normally chatty daughter, who tends to go monosyllabic when conversation seems forced. So, I've been letting her handle the radio and do whatever she likes (she doesn't have a phone, but she will read or stare out the window seemingly happily). I make the occasional comment about a song or something else, and sometimes we have more extended conversations. Other times we're content in quiet proximity. My spouse is outraged at my "awful parenting." Although I know outrage is the real issue here, am I doing something wrong by letting our daughter tune me out on some of the rare occasions we have one-on-one time?

A: Your spouse is outraged that you won’t talk to your 13-year-old daughter for a half-hour straight? This is “awful parenting”? I apologize for all the questions; I am just taken aback and a bit confused. For me, one of two things is happening here: Either you are truly disconnected from your teen and your spouse sees a crucial opportunity slipping away, or your spouse is projecting his worries onto you and is also too rigid in his definition of connection. The only clue I read is this: Are you doing something “wrong by letting our daughter tune me out on some of the rare occasions we have to spend one-on-one time?” If time is truly rare with your daughter, although I don’t think your spouse needs to shame you, you could be missing some crucial connection time.

The average 13-year-old is not known for a deep desire to talk to her parents . Many (not all) 13-year-olds are completely involved in their own minds. Their thoughts and emotions are all that matter, and although their empathy can be extremely high, it usually doesn’t extend to their parents. It doesn’t stay this way forever; this temporary narcissism reflects a rapidly changing brain that will begin to even out in the years to come. But in the meantime, it is normal for a 13-year-old to keep her distance from even the kindest parent.

Does this mean you should give her all the distance she craves? No. The paradox of raising a teen is that, as much as it seems like she doesn’t want anything to do with you, she wants and need you to connect with her. The studies are clear: Teens are listening to their parents and teens also want to connect to their parents. Lectures? No. Thoughtful questions and lots of listening? Yes. And although it can be a challenge to break through the endless sighs, eye rolls and muttered “I don’t know’s,” on the other side is a treasure trove of conversation and insight.

Related: [How do I get my daughter to enjoy outings with me — and no friends along?]

But every child communicates differently. Although I may look askance at some of the ideas, there is something to be said for Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages.” He introduces the idea that every human receives love and connection in a certain manner and, although we may love our teens to pieces, they may not be receiving our love the way we intend. For instance, your teen may love to connect and communicate while walking the dog or otherwise moving around. Or when you have done something nice for her, such as making a special snack. The point is that it is worth the effort to chat with your daughter during a car ride, but you also may learn that you both prefer listening to music and quietly enjoying each other’s company, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Try chatting with her in the car. Experiment with different topics and actively listen. What is your daughter interested in? I read the news on Snapchat and bring up a juicy story in the car with my teen. Or maybe begin planning a trip or a get-together with friends. Make it light and fun, and stay open to her thoughts. The idea is that you are attempting to connect to your daughter from many angles. If all your attempts fall short, you can formulate how to connect with her outside of these car rides, but every attempt you make at connection is worth it. Even when we are fumbling and imperfect, our children feel when we lovingly reach out to them.

In the meantime, this is not a marriage column, but I strongly recommend sitting down with your spouse and having a conversation about your parenting goals. I would suggest picking up “Untangled” by Lisa Damour and reading it together. It is normal for your teen to connect differently to each parent; be sure your spouse understands this and, if not, please get some professional help. When parents shame each other, it inevitably leads to resentments that can run deep and hurt the whole family. Good luck.

More from On Parenting:

How to use ‘Eighth Grade’ to jump-start some important conversations with your teen

To raise independent kids, treat middle school like a dress rehearsal for life

Tired, hangry kids, and lots of traffic: A veteran’s guide to the after-school witching hour

Why parents should try to be happy, even when their child isn’t


Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.

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On Parenting | Perspective

Am I an awful parent for not trying to engage my teen in conversation in the car?

By Meghan Leahy

September 12, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Q: My spouse and I are at odds about how to manage our 13-year-old daughter while driving her to activities. These trips can take 30 to 45 minutes each way. My spouse insists that time should be used for "positive engagement," so the radio should be off and we should find ways to have conversations. I'm not very comfortable with this and neither is our normally chatty daughter, who tends to go monosyllabic when conversation seems forced. So, I've been letting her handle the radio and do whatever she likes (she doesn't have a phone, but she will read or stare out the window seemingly happily). I make the occasional comment about a song or something else, and sometimes we have more extended conversations. Other times we're content in quiet proximity. My spouse is outraged at my "awful parenting." Although I know outrage is the real issue here, am I doing something wrong by letting our daughter tune me out on some of the rare occasions we have one-on-one time?

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