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 trust. Understanding the pattern can help you to identify underlying issues and worries, as well as getting to know their individual strengths and motivations.

Mutual respect is very important to teens. Showing respect and kindness toward them is as essential as it would be toward a friend or colleague.

5. Start with Understanding, Even When You Don’t Understand

No matter how hard it might be, try to start all interactions with understanding, even if you don’t fully agree with their actions, or comprehend the why. Avoid saying “I understand, but…” which will simply disqualify what you’ve just said. It’s essential that we start from a place of understanding, and try to put ourselves in our teen’s shoes first, before telling them what needs to change or commenting on the situation.

Getting to know what they love doing and what they hate doing, how they enjoy spending their time and what makes them happy, is one of the most important ways you can help them understand their own motivations. As parents and caregivers, we forget that teens are not children anymore. They are learning how to develop healthy ‘grown-up’ relationships, and this is why they can push you away and exclude you; it is their way of making space as they don’t know how to shift the relationship. Use your time to re-orient your space and mind around their needs as a young or budding adult, instead of presuming to assume their thoughts and actions. Rediscover their changes and get to know their new thoughts.

6. Reframe the Question in the positive

Asking a teen “why” they did something is a defensiveness-provoking question. Asking them ‘what’ you can do to help is broad and off-putting, and very few of us would be able to come up with an answer other than ‘I don’t know’ on the spot.

Reframe the question in the positive. For example, express what you saw them do, or avoided doing, in terms of the objective behaviour, tell them the impact that it had (e.g. you’re worried, you’re concerned, etc.) and then ask them if there is something that they want you to know about what they said or did. It’s important to stop asking “why”, and start a conversation instead.

7. Keep Communicating

Our youth have been consistently taught that as long as there is a will, the right mind-set and resources, everything is possible. At the same time, they are also experiencing a point in their life where they are able to do things they've never been able to do before, but may lack the experience and competence to feel confident about it.

Making mistakes and learning from those challenges is a necessary and natural part of their growth. He or she may have made a poor choice, but the truth is that they might not yet have the skill set or experience to make a better one. Our job, as parents and educators, is to help guide them to better choices so they can in turn develop better problem-solving skills.

8. Be A Safe and Encouraging Place

Teenagers live with the tension of trying to be both a part of themselves (which they are still figuring out) and what other people think they should be. The person they are when out with friends is often different to the person they are at home, or in the classroom, as they discover and cement their values. One of their greatest fears is that of disappointing people, and it can be confusing and lonely. Be a safe and encouraging place, and encourage an open and explorative environment.

Summary

Self-awareness in teenagers means recognition of their abilities, self-interest, and awareness of their feelings, and is one of the most important factors in mental health. Our work is based on the principle that self-awareness and self-acceptance are the cornerstone for healthy adults, who in turn are dynamic contributors to our society.

At the Bedrock Program, we provide a safe and secure space for teenagers to gain a better understanding of who they are, and how to articulate their needs and emotions.

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