Jeni Marinucci: Panic Button Years


How Keeping My Mouth Closed Got My Teen To Open Up

Just shut it

Talking to teenagers

Teenagers can be notoriously quiet when it comes to conversing with their parents. My daughter will often go all day without a word uttered, but if a friend is here, they don’t come up for air unless I slide a pizza under the bedroom door. My daughter is constantly on me for asking her too many questions, and it’s true; I do. And if you have teenage kids, I bet you ask them too many questions. I do it because I’ve been a teenager; and I’ve been a substantially “challenging” teenager if we’re going to go there. By the age my daughter is now I had already—well, that’s another story for another day—but suffice to say it involved peach brandy and a small town railway underpass.

One of my issues as a parent (as a person) is that I often have trouble finding the middle ground. I run hot or cold, off or on, completely laid-back or all up in your face crazy question lady. So, if my daughter was tired of Crazy Question Lady, I would be true to form and go a 180 degrees in the opposite direction and not ask anything of her at all. This would be interesting. This would be an experiment. This was going to be very, very difficult.

So, the next day when I saw my daughter in the morning, I did not ask her if she wanted breakfast. Of course she would be hungry and starving by the time second period science was over, and I worried that she had already blown through the box of emergency granola bars I had given her for her locker. (When did I become the person who handed out “emergency” anything? I used to be fun. I used to drink homemade peach brandy under railway trestles.) However, this is not how I envision my daughter spending her teen years, and so instead I supply her with granola bars, low-sugar fresh fruit smoothies, and a healthy fear of anything “railway” related.  But rather than starve that morning, an amazing thing happened; she looked at the empty space on the counter where a quick but sensible breakfast would normally be, and then made herself a waffle. SHE MADE HERSELF A WAFFLE. SHE WASN’T GOING TO STARVE.

This was working! But the bigger test was yet to come. She came into the house after school and, where I would have started grilling her about her day, I did not. I made sure to appear cheerful, not grouchy or sullen. I didn’t want her to interpret my silence as brewing anger, so I smiled and kept working after she stood there, patiently waiting for the prosecution to begin its questioning. Was this easy for me? No.

My outward self kept its lips closed, but my inner commentary went something like this: “How was school? How was your day? How was lunch? What did you eat for lunch? Did it include all four food groups? Who did you sit with? Did you get your math test back? What was your mark? How are your friends? Are you being bullied? What do you think about the current state of affairs in the Middle East? Who would attend your dream dinner party? Do you think heaven is a real physical place or merely a state accessible only to energy which has left its earthly form?” 

Nope, I didn’t ask any of that. Instead, I said only, “Hello!”

She disappeared into her room without the usual, “Stop asking me so many question, Mother!” was sort of nice. Sure I wanted to know how her day was, but I’m thinking that if I exhaust all her talking reserves, then she won’t have anything left for when we need to have a real discussion, like if and when she does have to deal with a bully or if she does want to talk about heaven. I don’t want to wear out my welcome on stupid stuff like her choice of lunch grain.

And then, vindication came. Yes, the best thing ever happened, and not only because it meant my instincts were right.  

She came out of her room, and said to me—without prompting—“You won’t believe what happened today...”