Worried About Your Emotionally Distant Teenager? Doctor Shares Parenting Tips (and When to Seek Outside Help)

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Parenting a teen can be tough. In what feels like no time, they can go from being extremely chatty and open to emotionally distant.  

We brought in family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa, who specializes in empowering parents with knowledge about child development, to share her tips for handling distant teens. The board-certified family physician also discusses when parents should be concerned that their child’s behavior is outside of what's developmentally appropriate.   

"The most important thing to say here is: If you're worried, don't ignore that. You are an expert in your child, and if you see that something has changed, or believe there is something to worry about, look into it," says Dr. G.  

Follow these steps:  

1. Ask your teen how they're doing.  

"Ask when there aren't a lot of distractions or opportunities to be interrupted, and when other people aren't around [because at this moment] you have time and energy to be patient and empathetic to the answer," she explains.  

"You could say 'How's your heart?' or 'What's happening with and to you these days?' or 'How's your mood been recently?'" Dr. G adds.  

2. Listen.  

"Don't fix, don't judge, don't jump in or interrupt, just listen, even if it's quiet at first," she says.  

3. If they tell you anything real, just show gratitude for their trust.  

Say things like 'thanks for telling me' or 'I appreciate you answering', Dr. G suggests.  

4. If they mention any feelings, show empathy.

However, show empathy without trying to fix their problem or telling them how to feel or what to do. Additionally, invite them to tell you more.  

Say things like, "I hear you. That sounds hard. Want to say more?" 

Some additional tips from Dr. G:  

1. Use "I" statements.  

If your teen tells you they're fine, that might be true. Watch and listen for another day or two, and if you're still worried, use "I" statements like, "I've noticed you're quieter at dinner than usual" or "I'm wondering if you're bothered by anything because your mood seems to have changed."   

2. If they brush you off and you’re still concerned, ask another trusted adult who knows your child well to give you their impression.  

If you're both worried that your teen isn't talking, bring your child to a professional therapist or guidance counselor or your family doctor. This is the same as physical health – if they looked pale and weren't eating and you thought they were sick, you wouldn't hesitate to get them checked out, even if they told you it was "nothing." 

Dr. G also answered other frequently asked questions about screen time for little kids, dealing with kids talking back and tips to having a child eat healthier.  

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