Ideally, we’d all hope our children would feel comfortable sharing absolutely anything with us—no matter how big or small—but as we were all young once, we know some situations might be easier to talk to parents about than others. That said, real-life tragedies in our communities—and those on shows like "13 Reasons Why"—really hit home and remind us that some of the hardest things to talk about are actually the most important.
While the Netflix hit show has everyone talking about teen suicide and assault, we also need to be talking more about how to improve communication between teens and the adults who can actually help them. We’re sure you’ve always told your daughter to come to you if she’s facing issues like bullying, inappropriate comments about her body, self-harm, or substance abuse—but there are still a host of reasons why she might be reticent to turn to you for help. Check them out below, and learn how you can help bridge the gap.
- She’s scared of being punished
If your daughter has been involved with something or hanging out with someone you might not approve of, she may hide it from you even if the situation becomes dangerous. Make sure to tell her from an early age that she can always call you for help—no matter what—and that even if you’re disappointed in her actions, her well-being is always most important to you. Agree on a code word or “excuse” (maybe “I ate something weird and have hives” or “that weird headache is coming back”) that she can call you with or text you for an anytime emergency pick-up and immediate, unconditional support. Questions can come later—her health and safety always come first.
- She doesn’t want to betray a friend
Social ties are directly tied to self-worth for most teenagers, and being trusted with a secret can be almost an honor among friends at this age. But some secrets like thoughts of self-harm, substance abuse, or physical or emotional violence must be shared, as they could actually save someone’s life. Tell her early and often that although her friend might be furious at her for sharing, real friends look out for each other’s safety—no matter what.
- She thinks you won’t listen
In the past, when she’s come to you with a problem, have you brushed it off as no big deal? Are you often texting when she’s telling you about her day? If that’s the case, there’s a chance she thinks she wouldn’t be heard even if she did open up to you. You can help fix this by being more fully present when having conversations with your daughter. No phones, no TV, and no interrupting her until she’s done telling you what’s going on.
- She thinks you won’t understand
Kids, especially teenagers, often find it impossible to believe that their parents were ever young, in high school and facing many of the same difficulties they’re facing today. So talk to your girl about your own teen years—the ups, the downs, the really hard times. And if you have a lousy day in your present-day life? Share that with her in an accessible, age-appropriate way, too—along with how you’re working through it. This will show her that bumps in the road can be navigated more smoothly when you have someone on your team, and possibly make her more likely to open up to you when things get tough on her end.
- She thinks you don’t have time
Between work, figuring out what’s for dinner, paying the bills, schlepping back and forth to soccer practice, and making sure the dog got fed, you are busy. What your daughter needs to know, though, is that you’re never too busy for her and that she’s your number one priority. Start setting aside weekly one-on-one time with your girl one night a week after school or on the weekends to really connect and show her you’re there for her.
- She doesn’t want to stress you out
It’s absolutely OK, and in fact, important to let your children know that your life isn’t perfect and that you face disappointments and hurdles just like everyone else. But if you already seem overwhelmed by other parts of your life, your daughter might try to spare you by not sharing her own worries, sadness, or anxieties. If you need emotional support to get through a particularly rough time, try turning to other adults in your life (friends, family, community leaders) rather than asking your daughter to shoulder that burden on her own. She needs you as a support, and might not feel that you can be one if she’s always supporting you.
- She doesn’t want to seem babyish
As a tween or teen, your daughter wants to prove how independent she can be—and for some girls, that might mean “handling things” on her own without going to Mom or Dad for advice or support. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that reaching out for help is one of the strongest, most mature things any person can do. Help her see things differently by telling her stories about times when people in your or her life were smart enough to seek a helping hand—and praise her maturity in times when she does turn to you.
- She’s embarrassed or ashamed
Teenagers—especially girls—feel a lot of shame and humiliation over things that are totally normal. And having a culture that focuses so much on girls’ and women’s bodies only adds to the problem. So make a point to not shame other girls and women over how they look, what they eat, or what they do or don’t do with their bodies—and call out unfair shaming or sexist name-calling when you see it happen. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also help your daughter feel more comfortable confiding in you around what might be more sensitive matters.
- She’s doesn’t want to be a whiner
Your daughter might feel weird or different for being upset by behaviors everybody else seems fine with—whether that’s rude comments, “teasing,” or other behavior that’s so prevalent in our world that it almost seems normal. So make sure to call out instances of bullying, taunting, and harassment when you see them in real life or on TV, and talk to her about why they’re not OK. It’ll help her see that you’d get it if she came to you with a similar issue.
- She wants everyone—including you—to think her life is perfect
With social media making it easier than ever to fabricate a flawless life, there’s extra pressure on girls to appear happy, upbeat, and positive 24/7. After all, if everyone else on Instagram is having so much fun, shouldn’t she be, too? That pressure can lead to girls masking totally normal (even healthy!) feelings like sadness, isolation, anxiety, and anger instead of working through them with family and friends. Talk to her about how things can seem one way on social media and be totally different in real life, and ask her about any expectations she thinks she has to live up to. Sharing any unrealistic expectations you feel others might have of you might help her feel more comfortable opening up.
- She’s worried you’ll blab to grandma, the aunts, and everyone else
It’s not just teens who spread gossip—adults do it, too, even if not in a malicious way. So try to watch yourself and limit your own urge to unnecessarily spread news about the neighbor down the street or your brother’s girlfriend’s health issue. This will help your daughter take you seriously when you say she can trust you not to tell the whole town about her problem.
- She’s being intimidated or threatened
From saying, “I’ll get in trouble if you tell,” to “I’ll beat you up if you talk,” bullies and abusers often use fear of retribution or emotional manipulation to keep their targets quiet. When you talk to your children about bullying and adult predators, make sure to talk about this element of it. Let them know that anyone who says those kinds of things should not be trusted, and if they’re ever in that kind of a situation, to come to you right away for help and protection if needed.
- She’s sure the situation is hopeless
Sometimes social drama or other issues can build up to such a level that it can seem there’s nothing anyone could do to help. That’s why it’s important to always let her know that while you might not always have the answers to any specific problem, you’ll always be there to help her think through the problems, to listen and be there for support, or to connect her to people who can help. Above all, let her know she’s never alone, and that you will love her and cherish her no matter what.