“Fine”: Getting Beyond the One-word Answer

by Rom Brafman PhD.,
ACS On-Campus Counselor

It’s a sure sign that your son or daughter is entering adolescence. You ask them how their school day went, how was the afternoon spent hanging out with friends, or how was the movie they just watched, and you get the overly succinct and curt, “Fine.”

Other related one-word non-answers include the annoying “Stuff” (in response, for example, to “What did you do in school?”) or the ever frustrating, “Whatever.”

What do these one-word replies mean and what does a parent do when encountering them?

On one hand, these succinct utterances are perfectly normal. Teenagers are in the midst of exploring their independence and place boundaries on what they want to share. “Fine” can be their way of saying, “A few years ago you were my main source of social interaction and I included you in virtually everything that was going on in my life. But now as I’m getting older I’m relying on friends more and I don’t really feel like engaging in a conversation with you about this topic.”

Still, as a parent, it’s impossible not to feel a bit of a letdown or a feeling of rejection by the one-word answer–especially when you learn that your son or daughter is texting endlessly to his or her friends about the exact same subject matter you asked about and got nowhere.

To a parent, the “fine” type of non-response often acts as a stop sign. After all, what can you really say to follow a one-word answer?

Parent: How did your day go today?
Teenager: Fine.
Parent: Oh.

While sometimes it’s a good idea to respect your teen’s short response and leave the matter alone, it’s important to understand that your son or daughter doesn’t truly want you to give up all together. Teenagers don’t always know how to broach a subject and they often don’t realize that their terse response can come across as off-putting. Here are some things you can do as a parent when you want to have a real conversation with your teen:

Ask questions that can’t be answered with “fine” alone. For example, instead of asking “How was your day?” you can ask “What was your favorite part of today?” or “What unusual things happened today?” You may still get short responses, but at least your teen knows that you are interested in having a conversation, not just checking if he or she is OK.

Be honest. Let your son or daughter know what’s on your mind without assigning blame. For example, you can say, “I love you a lot and I’m very interested in you and what’s going on in your life. I don’t expect you to tell me everything, but I’d like to hear what you think about things and your opinions and any little things that happened to you today.” You may have to repeat this message often.

Rephrase. If you get a one-word reply, feel free to try again. For example, you can say, “I’m glad to hear it went fine. But what I’m really trying to get at is what was your experience overall. I’d love to hear the full story.”

Use humor. If you and your teen feel comfortable joking around together you can make light of the awkward situation of being given a one-word response. For example, if you ask your teen how her meeting with her friends went and she says, “Fine,” you can say, “Is there a secret password I need to hear more?” Of course, this strategy only works if your child understands that it’s not meant as a dig but as a way of forming a closer bond. If you think that your humor might be misconstrued as being insensitive, then it may be a good idea not to use this strategy.

Create one-on-one time. Go somewhere nice, just the two of you. Or just your spouse, you, and your teen. You may want to go for lunch somewhere, to a museum, or on a nice drive. Let your teen know that you’re creating this time because you enjoy spending time together and are curious about how their life is going. Try to make this outing a standard, weekly occurrence.

Model. Sometimes the best way of getting someone to open up is to take the lead. If you share with your teen stories about what your experiences were when you were their age, they might feel more open to go deeper with you. This sharing shouldn’t be of the “When I was your age we had to walk a mile to school” variety, but more so about stories from your life about a favorite teacher, a difficult time, or even a crush you had on someone and what you did (or didn’t do) about it.

The most important thing to remember is that your teen may or may not open up as fast as you would like, but if he or she knows that you are interested and that you’re not one to give up trying, eventually they’ll start putting their guard down.

Rom is a counselor with ACS’ On-Campus Counseling Program. To learn more about this program visit the ACS website at www.acs-teens.org or call Roni Gillenson, MFT, On- Campus Counseling Program Director (650) 424-0852 ext. 102.  ACS relies on the generosity of community members to continue offering individual, family, and group counseling to over 1,500 individuals annually.  ACS provides critical interventions and mental health services, building a better future for tomorrow. If you are interested in helping to support our efforts, click here to make a donation. It goes a long way in helping teenagers find their way!

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One Response to ““Fine”: Getting Beyond the One-word Answer”

  1. Reblogged this on Laura Lamere and commented:
    Sound familiar? Don’t give up!

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