The young man’s baggy clothes drooped on his slouching sixteen-year-old frame, and his long hair seemed just a day or two away from becoming matted completely. The appearance was typical for him, but as he stood in my office doorway that day something else seemed uncharacteristically haggard.
My job at that time was working with youth, and this kid (we’ll call him “Mike”) was one of the students I had regular interaction with. You could even say I was mentoring him a bit. Mike wasn’t the kind of guy who stopped by my office often, so when he showed up at the door I began to wonder if something was going on. Never one to beat around the bush with that sort of thing, I launched the two of us into a little dialogue.
“How’s your day, Mike?” I asked.
He responded with a shrug and a grunt. “OK,” he said.
I prodded some more. “What’ve you been up to?”
I kept going. “Where were ya last night?”
Apparently that was the question he had been waiting for. Mike sighed, leaned back in his chair, and unleashed the whole story.
He told me about the party, and what he had done there. With his head hanging low, he guessed at how much alcohol he had consumed. Then he confessed it had been really late when he finally arrived home safely.
Mike’s admissions hardly shocked me that day—I had suspected for some time that he was making some destructive decisions. What did shock me, though, was the way Mike ended his story. His parents hadn’t even noticed, he told me. They never called to figure out why he hadn’t come home at a decent hour. They weren’t awake when he stumbled into the house during the early hours of morning. And when he dragged himself out of bed a few hours later, they didn’t ask him where he had been the night before or why he seemed so groggy the morning after.
At this point in the telling, Mike got quiet. For a few seconds he looked intently at his feet while his eyes worked hard to blink back tears. Then he went on.
“Dan,” he said to me, “you always ask the questions that really seem to matter.” He paused for a second, and when he continued it was with animated anguish. “Why don’t my parents care enough to ask me those same questions?”
With that, he was done. He had admitted defeat, and he had nothing else left to say.
Sitting there, hunched under his scraggly-hair-and-oversized-clothes façade, Mike’s eyes pleaded with mine for an explanation. The expression on his face in that moment was one I’ll never forget. It was the look of someone who would do anything to feel loved—to be truly known—by the two people who should have known him best.
There are countless reasons why parents don’t ask their kids the important questions. Sometimes parents don’t ask because they’re scared of what they’ll hear in response. Sometimes they don’t ask because they think they can’t handle the follow-up. Sometimes they’re worried the truth will hurt or cause a rift or shatter the family’s reputation. Sometimes they’re just too busy and too concerned with other things.
Whatever their reasons might be, no excuse is a good one here. Relationships don’t exist unless people are willing to share their lives, and teenagers don’t often share their lives with people who don’t seem interested.
Teens want parents to care that they’re safe, that they’re making good decisions, that they’re telling the truth, that they’re feeling OK. Teens want parents who care, even when it’s difficult—especially when it’s difficult. Teens want to hear “I love you” from their mom and dad, but telling a teen you love them often isn’t enough.
Most of the time, it’s the asking that makes the difference.