“Ok, I get you might need a moment to think about your answer.” Or,
“I understand you have a lot on your mind.” Taking another inhale…
A few moments later you ask the seemingly simple question again and get the same, flat ‘I don’t know’ response.
Insert inside voice, “Aaannnnddd we’re breathing…stay calm….stay calm.” You muster some further supportive prodding with,
“So, if you did know, what would that be your answer?”
“Mom, I said I don’t know!”
ARG! You just flew past frustrated to, “Oh I’ll show you ‘a lot on your mind’ child! I’m trying to manage the house, meal planning, working, being patient, AND not yelling at you WITH a calm face, but for HEAVEN’S SAKE! It’s not like I’m asking for the secret to life itself! If you don’t know the answer to this simple question, you’re either choosing to be difficult or have developed a vacancy between your ears!”
What if it was true?
Teens use “I don’t know” as an honest response because they don’t know! They understand your question and know what you’re asking, but they genuinely don’t know the answer (or how to articulate it if they did) because it’s all jumbled code.
‘I don’t know’ becomes a go-to response over time, just like many other habits, fueling your frustration and belief your teen is just being lazy and trying to annoy you.
Researchers have shown that blood flow to the developing areas in a teenager’s brain is rather random, creating a non-linear development pattern. Even though their emotional brain, the amygdala, is fully formed by 12 years of age, they’re getting all new hardware AND software for intellectual functioning.
Your teen is frustrated too.
The lack of control over their brain processing makes communication more frustrating. At some level, your teen knows what they want to say but sorting through complex thoughts and emotions to articulate something that makes sense feels overwhelming and complicated.
Can you imagine living in that brain on a daily basis? It’s like understanding a new language in a foreign country, but you can’t speak the language yet, so you have no way of communicating back to the locals.
What if you tried and were made fun of?
When I posted a video about the overuse of ‘I don’t know’ on TikTok, thousands of teenagers told me it’s their go-to phrase because the few times they tried to share their thoughts/feelings, they felt shut down, brushed off, invalidated, judged and more. Now, they’ve sworn to stay closed like a clam and use ‘I don’t know’ as their protective shield.
Perception is truth.
I’m not saying you do those things or that you’re a bad parent. Perception is truth, and perception is everything. If your teen perceives that they’re going to feel judged, criticized, or heard, then that’s what’s true for them.
Teenagers often think their parents don’t listen to them and that story gets in their way of using more words. When I ask teens what it means to feel heard, they have a very clear idea which I encourage them to share.
Check your Story.
You look at your teenager and think, “You’re old enough and smart enough to know the answers to these basic questions! That might have worked when you were younger, but why are you using this as an excuse to be so rude? Are you trying to shut me out?”
You’re going down a dangerous path thinking they should know because they have the IQ to answer your question with more than a three-word answer.
Your story of “should” is a red flag, an expectation that will only end up with you feeling disappointed and your teen feeling judged. That story will disconnect you and your teenager because their hyper-aware emotional brain can feel it without you having to say a word.
The more annoyed you become, the more attacked they feel which puts their brain into a mild state of fight or flight. This redirects blood flow away from their developing processing centre as you’re wondering why they won’t use it! It’s a vicious cycle.
Take a step back.
Your teen already thinks there’s something wrong with them (seriously) which often feeds anxiety. Being patient is the best way for your teen to feel validated and accepted where they’re at to increase their chances of accessing their newly developing processing centers.
I.e. “I know you might not know, or maybe you know, and finding the words to express that feels hard.” or “It’s okay.”
“What can I do to have you feel more heard?”
Remember the more you press, the more ‘I don’t know’ you’ll get. Even though you care deeply and want to support your teen on tough days (or through a pandemic!), using phrases like, “What’s wrong?” reinforces their belief that they’re broken in some way.
Model simple, emotional language.
“I feel X about Y.”
When you model emotional expression, you create safety for your teenager to put words to their emotions. Their brain is trying to put a frame of reference around this new set of very complex feelings; what do they look like, sound like, and how do you know?
Keep it simple by picking one feeling and only one topic or situation. This supports your teen to build their own 3D model for emotional words so they can process them more easily and quickly.
The Feeling Wheel.
Here’s the free tool I use – The feeling Wheel by Dr. Gloria Wilcox. As you can see, the simpler emotions are in the centre and move to more complicated ones around the edge. I highly recommend that you put this on the fridge and even bring it up at the dinner table. Each person can even take turns sharing a feeling they had that day and what was going on around them at that moment.
Note: no sharing is up for judgement, correction, or fixing!
The first step toward effective self-advocacy is knowing oneself. Helping your teenager to build clear emotional language to feel confident speaking up in situations is critical for creating healthy relationships. That includes clearly communicating when they feel a boundary has been crossed (dating, sex, etc.) or if something feels morally wrong.
Self-advocacy and strong communication are also critical success factors in the workplace to support two-way dialogue, discussing critical issues, build trust, and lead others.
Our teenagers will one day be running the world for us. Equipping them with emotional language to be assertive when necessary and fully and passionately express themselves is a priceless and lifelong gift.
As you engage and listen to your teen, be patient and compassionate with their ‘I don’t know’. Modeling a more robust emotional vocabulary will set them, and your relationship up for success in the future.
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