The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The surprising way teens talk about the parents they seem to ignore


When he was young, my son once asked me to end a phone call so that we could discuss what to do if a Tyrannosaurus rex walked up the street. I told him that we would go to the roof, which is too high for a dinosaur to see, and stand behind the chimney. I remember the way he watched my eyes as I answered, as if to gauge my confidence in my ability to keep him safe.

I also remember many years later, when he was older and he began to answer my questions either with the words “no idea” or the face of someone who did not recognize me. Had I not had other teenagers to know that this was normal, I would have been sad, remembering how we could once talk about anything. But I knew he needed space, so I gave it to him.

Teenagers, even those who were chatty and inquisitive when they were young, often go into what feels like a tunnel, leaving us to wait at the other end with a flashlight so they can find us when they feel like talking again.

In an August article, “What teens need most from their parents,” Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal wrote that there is a delay of roughly two years between teens’ attraction to risky behavior and their development of the intellectual power to reason away from it. If your child who has always been a squeaky wheel has become a quiet one, that can feel like a very long time.

And, oh, how parents worry while we wait. We scrutinize ourselves and our relationship with our teens, agonizing over what we’ve said, or wish we hadn’t said, or wish we could say, but can’t right now, because it hurts to hand someone your heart only to have them give it back to you with a face that says, “Why are you like that?”

We see the studies and the reports on parenting trends, and we wonder: Are we guiding, or are we over-parenting? Directing or controlling? Teaching them to deal with failure, or shielding them from it? What of that closed door and the teen behind it? Is she in trouble? Or might she need only her own company to come back to herself? We read heartbreaking stories of parents who saw signs of trouble and did nothing, and we lose our appetites.

Quiet wheels at any age can be complicated people. But teens, who only draw more attention with their efforts to escape, are a puzzling bunch.

I volunteer as a writing coach for teens at a youth organization. They are there because they have faced challenges that range from family strife to bullying at school and other difficulties they didn’t see coming. We work together on their stories of resilience until they feel strong enough to tell them before community judges, with their eyes on the title of “Youth of the Year.”

They pick up some generous scholarship money, and many step from the stage to become the first in their families to go to college. You can see exactly what that means to the parents being handed a tissue when their child wins.

The parents of these teens tell me how little their children say at home, how they don’t know how to talk to them anymore.

But the teens do talk to me. We chat about their circumstances, social challenges, problems with cruel peers and eventually, about their parents. This is what I hear more than anything else:

“My mom’s awesome.”

“I’m super close to my dad.”

I know something now that I didn’t know when it was me holding that flashlight at the end of the tunnel, waiting for my child: The issues we face with our teenagers grow vastly more complicated every day, and although the specifics differ, the things they need most from us are the same. Teens need us to respect their individuality and to refuse to give up on them.

In other words, they need an ally.

That probably sounds obvious to parents with younger children. It’s more challenging when, at times, you’d like to be the one to help them into the tunnel.

Parenting is as hard as life itself. Watching our kids face social issues that would have flattened us is hard. Being unable to provide proper food, clothing or the latest gadget is hard. Second-guessing ourselves and being judged by other parents is hard. Giving our best to growing children, only to find ourselves wondering how to start a conversation with them, is extremely difficult.

Being a lifelong ally, however, is not hard.

I am certain that many of the kids I work with have been quiet wheels at home while they work through daily struggles that other teens don’t face. I am also certain that for many, the relationships they need most are the ones they may appear to value the least.

And yet, they say:

“My mom’s my best friend.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without my dad.”

If we can’t possess the knowledge of experts, or the peace of the experienced, we should remember that we probably do still rise in the morning with the tools to make the biggest difference: All-weather love, unfailing presence and a good flashlight to guide them out of the darkness.

Susan Bonifant is an essayist, novelist and mother of four who blogs about life after the last college drop-off at Attic View. She lives with her husband and cat in Hopkinton, N.H. Follow her on Twitter @SusanBonifant.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter or check out On Parenting at

You might also be interested in:

Want to keep your grown kids in your life? Learn to be the impartial neighbor.

I bought alcohol for my kids, even when they were underage. Here’s why.

Let’s accept when our teens are rebelling, and lean on each other for help