The Grunt Stage: What to Do When Teens Won't Talk
When I ask someone a question, I rather expect him to say something in response. But most teenagers, at some point in their development, seem to find responding to parents impossible. No matter what the question - "Did you have a good day at school?" "Did you remember to shovel the walks?" "Would you like to go to a movie?" - the only answer forthcoming is a grunt.
The "grunt stage" is a normal part of teen development. It's an automatic process that is out of control, a process of putting distance between himself and his parents from to time.
When their teens reach the grunt stage, parents need to realize that the kids are very much like two-year-olds. You can't force a two-year-old to do what you want. Parents who don't know that are going to be very bewildered.
It's the same with the grunt stage. Parents, who try to batter down the barrier, for example with questions, do not understand normal teen behavior. It can be damaging to force the teen to open up. He needs the space, the distance, for a while. It is a time for the parents to be as patient as possible.
During this stage, physical and eye contact become very important. They can be ways of loving the child, even without his open consent. Sometimes only physical contact is possible, because the teen avoids eye contact.
Fortunately, during this grunt stage teens aren't acutely aware of what is going on around them. So while they are reading or watching TV or daydreaming, you can just touch them lightly and briefly on the shoulders or the back. My favorite trick is either to use them as a crutch when I get up from a chair, or to lightly touch them on the back as they watch TV. I make a game of it by seeing how many times I can touch them before they notice.
It's okay if they don't notice, because the touch still registers. In fact, I prefer that they not notice. If they do notice and jerk away from me, that doesn't hurt anything. But they usually don't.
Another way parents can communicate with a teen in the grunt stage is by doing things to help him feel better. If it's a terribly hot day and you know he'd like a glass of something cold to drink, get him one. You don't have to do it so often that you look like a servant. It should look natural. You fixed a drink for yourself, so you fixed one for him too.
Parents can also arrange to spend time with teens so that they don't feel pressured to do or say anything. Different kids like different situations. With my daughter, I would take her out to eat in a place where the line was sure to be long. I absolutely abhor standing in line, but it was a way to be with her. It put her under no obligation to say anything.
With my son, taking him to football practice, going to a movie, or going anywhere by car are all effective. I don't have to say anything, and neither does he. He is under no pressure.
It takes times for teens to open up even in non-pressure situations. My daughter required at least half an hour standing in line waiting to be served before she would begin to talk. She would start to talk about superficial matters. Then she would go deeper and deeper until finally she would say what was really on her heart.
Teens have such a stake in what they are saying that they have to ease into it. They have to set the stage. They can't feel cornered, unable to get away from their parents. They can't have the fear of being interrupted.
Then, often before telling their parents anything important, they put up a smoke screen. They have to be sure it is safe to open up. They will say something carefully designed to upset their parents, but this is only a test. If the parents pass the test, teens will start to share what is really bothering them. Sometimes I passed the test, and sometimes I didn't.
Another way teens communicate is by picking the worst possible moment to test you to see if you really want to listen to them. They are masters of timing. For instance, if I'm late for a meeting, they will wait until I'm putting my arm in the sleeve of my coat to say, "Hey, Dad, have you got a minute?"
Sometimes a teen who has had good communication will suddenly stop talking. He may be depressed, or he may be acting out anger. If the grunt stage goes on for days and weeks with no letup, then we know there are serious problems that we have to deal with.
Normally the grunt stage is intermittent - teens go in and out of it. We can't afford to select the times to communicate with them, because if they come out of it and we're not there, we've lost our chance. We can't be there all the time, of course, but if we're there enough, we're doing our job.