How many times in the past week have you tried to have a conversation with your teen about something she did wrong and she says “I don’t know”?
“How come you got a D in math?” I don’t know.
“Didn’t I say you needed to get off Facebook and study more??” I don’t know.
“Why don’t you know the answer to my questions???” I don’t know.
And how many times do you respond back “What do you mean you don’t know??”
It’s so maddening!! It feels defiant, and you know she knows. You’ve told her 100 times before already, so you’re thinking “If she doesn’t get it by now when will she?????”
I feel your anger and frustrating rising. How do you even begin to solve this so your teen can explain exactly what she did wrong, why she did it, and can clearly articulate a plan so she doesn’t do it again?
First things first. You must figure out what “I don’t know” means.
When your child says “I don’t know” she typically means:
- It’s difficult for me to talk about what I’ve done.
- I’m confused right now and it’s hard for me to figure things out.
- It doesn’t matter what I say because you’re going to tell me what I did wrong anyway.
- I know why but if I talk about it you are going to react in an upsetting way.
- I’m saying the first automatic phrase on my mind so I can tune you out and you’ll walk away.
You are an intuitive parent. Based off your child’s behaviors I know you have an inkling about what “I don’t know means.” Which one of the above resonates with you?
So how do you change “I don’t know” into “I know, therefore I will do better”?
At this point, you have to ask yourself “What’s my goal?” My guess is your goal is to get your child to understand what she did wrong so she won’t do it again.
Yes! But to do that you have to address the meaning behind the “I don’t know” rather than the face value of “I don’t know.”
It is essential to look at your part in the broken communication. How you respond to the “I don’t know” will deterine the success of the rest of the conversation. Let’s take the above list and change each possible “I don’t know” so it reflects a question you can answer.
- Why is my child having a difficult time talking with me about what she’s done?
- I see my child is confused right now, so how can I help her figure things out?
- How can I talk to my child so she feels that what she says matters to me?
- How can I react to my child’s words so it doesn’t shut down communication?
- What can I do so I stay connected with my child when we have to talk about difficult subjects?
When you can answer these questions, you can help your child to answer with something more substantial than “I don’t know.” In fact, answering these questions will help communication with your teen in general.
Bottom line: Going deeper into the “why” behind the “I don’t know” will help you be the key to unlocking your teen’s brain. Monitoring how you respond to your teen is the first step toward guiding her to make better choices.
Please comment below: Do you ever feel stuck when your teen answers your important questions with “I don’t know”? How do you interpret that phrase? How do you respond so you can help her to open up?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.