Tuesday 18 September 2018

Dear David Coleman: My teenage son seems anxious to take the bus, but he won't explain what the problem is

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Photo posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. Our 15-year-old son won't use public transport and this is becoming a major issue as he next heads into Transition Year. As his school is not on a public transport route, we currently drop and collect him. When we can't collect him, we have suggested to him that he walk to the nearest bus stop that is approximately 1.5 km away (lots of the young people walk that way) but he has point blank refused. He gets extremely angry and upset and is unable to explain what the problem is. He is a worrier who doesn't like the idea of getting into trouble.

A. There are many decisions, that our children make, that seem clear and rational to them, but seem to be entirely irrational to us. I think this may be what's going on for you and your son. Taking the bus, when you can't come and collect him, seems to be a very straightforward solution, and yet, something in that process distresses him.

I could imagine that he does have a reason why he can't go for that bus. But, if he is like most teenagers, something blocks him from explaining that reason to you. So, let's consider a few potential options for what might get in his way.

Option 1: he genuinely doesn't know what freaks him out about getting to, or taking, the bus. His fear about something being bad happening in this process is entirely irrational and he just has no way of trying to explain it to you in a way that you might understand, and so he just doesn't try.

Option 2: he has a reason, but he may worry that you won't think his reason is justifiable and he may fear that you will override him and force him to get the bus, anyway. As an extension of this fear, he might even worry that, if he describes the reason to you, you will ridicule him in some way for his reasoning.

Option 3: he fears that something bad will happen to him on the way to the bus, or on the bus. If he explains what that bad thing is, you might feel obliged to do something about it, which might put him in an even more awkward position with his peers, as it might get him or them into some kind of trouble.

Of these three options, I think that the third is the most likely explanation for why your son reacts, so strongly, when you try to question him about getting public transport. In the first instance, if you are questioning him, he may feel trapped, as your questions, by their nature, put a social responsibility on him to answer.

If he can't answer, because the answer might create more trouble for him or others, for example, then his angry outbursts make sense as a defensive response. By becoming angry, he might be able to successfully deflect or distract from the issue. He might also make you wary of further questioning him.

So, instead of asking him about why he won't take the bus, make some empathy statements to him that show you are interested in understanding his reasons. Those statements might sound like, "you seem really upset about the idea of getting the bus, I guess something about that really bothers you." Or, "I notice you sound really angry every time I suggest getting the bus, I wonder if something troubles you about that."

This demonstrates your willingness to try to see it from his perspective. Then you can add to that willingness by even suggesting some of your own theories about what it is that may trouble him. So, if we go with my option three, then you might suggest some ideas like these:

"I wonder if you don't like some of the kids who walk to the bus. Maybe some of them say or do stuff that really troubles you."

You could even suggest some of the "stuff" they might do like mocking, taunting, fighting, smoking and so on.

Given your description of your son as a "worrier who doesn't like the idea of getting into trouble", any of these kinds of things could be distressing for you son to witness, or get caught up in, and might be the very block to him using the bus.

Even if these are not the reasons, I think this empathetic and understanding approach will help you and him explore the real difficulty he has with using the bus, and that might open the door for a solution.

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