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Why Do Teenagers So Often Answer ‘I Don’t Know’?

How we view the world is layered with our own self-perception and also the expectations, fears, and excitement of others. These layers often intertwine with the truth, hiding the real reasons behind our actions, and preventing teenagers from knowing why they do or don’t do things.

When we see the uncertainty played out in the infamous "I don't know?", followed by the shrug of a shoulder and a shifting of the eye, it can trigger frustration in parents and educators, dealing with their own fears of not knowing how to help or where to start. For the teen, it can be equally frustrating, as they struggle to understand what they cannot label.

How to Break the ‘I Don’t Know’ Cycle

‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

- Epictetus

1. Accept It is Complicated

Acknowledging that these layers can complicate and distort self-perception, therefore making it difficult for teenagers to understand their own motivations, is the first step to breaking the cycle. Self-awareness follows the acceptance that we may not always understand or appreciate the feelings we are faced with on a day to day basis. Finding your calm within that, will allow your sub-conscious to open to discovery. For our teens, this is crucial. As a parent, we need to enable this step, and acknowledge with your teen that it is okay not to know, and encourage them to try to find out, through listening to themselves.

2. Avoid Treating It as Confrontational

The second step is understanding that they are usually not saying “I don’t know” to be deliberately provocative or to avoid responsibility.

Most likely, they really didn’t know why they either did something or avoiding doing something. Most teens are not as introspective or self-aware as you might think, and are usually not conscious of their deeper psychological motivations. It’s important not to take it personally, and keep your emotions out of it, even if you are worried about their response or the way they are behaving.

When you are feeling that the conversation is moving towards confrontation, take a step back, literally, and take a few deep hard and long breaths. You may not be able to control your teen, but you can control your response and change the reactions that follows your initial action.

3. Understand the Layers

The stock response of ‘I don’t know’ is their way of deflecting the conversation, and could be as a result of many conscious and sub-conscious reasons, including:

· I don’t know the answer

· I do know but I don’t want to share

· I do know but I don’t want to cause more problems

· I don’t want to get a friend into trouble

· I have the right to keep my feelings and thoughts private

· You are making me feel embarrassed, self-conscious, guilty, or frightened

At this age, our teens need our guidance and not our expectations or judgement. According to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space where we choose our response.’ It’s key that we model how to change our response to stressful situations.

4. Look for Behavioural Patterns

Look out for when they clam up, and when they are more conversational and willing to share information, and build on the latter times to create a relationship of two-way