My Teen Never Tells Me Anything -- Except Through Text

by Kristen Mae
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At first, the texts to my teen son followed morning shouting episodes that had left me feeling guilty and inadequate as a mother, or just plain furious at my son’s apparent inability to respect other people’s time. Once he was off to school and out of reach, I couldn’t contain my need to either apologize or clarify my position, even if I knew he wouldn’t see the text until after his school’s afternoon bell.

Sometimes, when my son would be working with classmates on a school project, or he was at his dad’s, and I had something to say to him, I couldn’t stop myself from texting him. I would tell myself I should set aside some time to sit and talk one on one, but in these instances it was less that I was overcome with the impulse to share my thoughts immediately, and more that I was afraid I’d forget to tell him whatever it was I’d wanted to say.

When it comes to communicating face-to-face, my teenage son and I are a cliche — there is an invisible wall between us. My communication skills are weakened by a maternal bias that I can’t shake no matter how hard I try. I’m also old — from a bygone generation for whom the internet was a novelty and not a necessity, and smartphones were but a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. For Pete’s sake, I typed papers on an actual typewriter and called friends on a rotary phone. And even though my son admits I’m “pretty cool, actually, for a mom,” the fact remains that I don’t, and can’t possibly ever, completely “get it.” And so, in-person communication with my son is punctuated by eyerolls and a certainty of not being understood — from both of us. We speak different languages, or at least, it often feels like we do.

I didn’t expect digital communication with my son to go any better. I just wanted to talk to him — to know him — and when face-to-face wasn’t working or when he simply wasn’t around to have a conversation, text was the option that was available. I would have used whatever means were at my disposal.

But text communication has worked better. I get more response from my son via text than I ever did when we talked face-to-face. Even now, in the midst of a global pandemic and an open-ended shelter-in-place, when my teen is under my roof and separated by two panels of drywall, our best communication is by text.

Last week I texted him a screenshot of the grades he’d earned so far with distance learning. (It wasn’t pretty.) I’d read expert opinions recommending that parents allow kids to adjust period and not to get too crazy with schoolwork enforcement, but it was clear by my son’s grades that in some classes he wasn’t even trying. I accompanied the screenshot with the text, “You have until Friday to pull these up, or you’ll lose electronics until you do.”

Clean, clear, to the point. No risk I’d make that weird, eyebrows-in-my-hairline “or else” face that causes both my kids to involuntarily snicker. No risk I’d suddenly lose my shit and start screeching like a harpy and toss my credibility out the window. Just a clear expectation and a consequence, in writing. I heard my son’s sigh through the drywall and then, a few minutes later, his texted response: “Okay.” Four days later, his grades were back up.

But we don’t just text about disciplinary issues. I forward my teen son memes that are over the head of (or inappropriate for) my 10-year-old, and his cackle rings through the house. I think he likes it that I think of him and trust that he’ll understand crude or politically charged humor. I think it surprises him that I also appreciate this kind of humor.

He sends me YouTube videos of explosive chemical reactions or music compilations or “epic fails.” In the first days of shelter-in-place, he forwarded several videos sorting “fact from fiction” about the coronavirus. He hardly said anything to me out loud about COVID-19. I only knew it was on his mind, worrying him, because of the videos he sent. This enabled me to bring it up over dinner and talk through some of the kids’ fears and our plans for how we would get through a prolonged lockdown, coming from a place of already knowing what they knew.

Texting has opened the door to other in-person conversations, too. It’s as if my teenage son and I are laying our cards on the table before we begin the game. Cutting out the game altogether, in fact. Knowing what each other knows removes doubt and suspicion. I don’t doubt my son’s awareness of current events as a function of his youth, and he doesn’t assume I know nothing due to my being old and out of touch. Our texting back and forth puts us on the same page, like walking into a company meeting and immediately being handed a detailed itinerary. It reduces the potential for awkward or annoying surprises.

Is that why texting so often works better than conversation for me and my son? Is it because the ongoing sharing of information removes the emotional stakes?

I think yes, but I also think it’s more than that. My follow-up texts to a difficult school morning conveyed emotions more evolved than my sleep-deprived, primitive emotions of guilt and anger. As I wrote and edited my texts, I had time to process my emotions and think about what I really wanted to say — how I truly felt, even. Was I really as angry as I seemed that my son almost forgot his field trip permission slip? Or was that an understandable mistake on my son’s part and I was grumpy and short on caffeine?

In my follow-up texts, I apologize for my overreactions and clearly explain my justified ones. I remember to show my pride and soften my anger. I remember — and acknowledge — that my son is doing the best he can, that he’s not yet an adult but definitely isn’t a kid either, and that I am also not perfect but am also doing the best I can.

I see similar thoughtfulness in my son’s responses. He may not use as many words as I do, but texting is, after all, his language — literally the language of his generation. The memes he chooses to send tell me about his silly sense of humor. The videos of cute animals tell me about his soft heart. The science and math videos tell me about his curious mind.

And, though I wouldn’t want texting to replace face-to-face interaction, I will use whatever means available to know my kid. If that means that some of our best conversations happen with a literal wall between us, well, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.

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