Kids from as young as 3-years-old and into their teens often communicate indirectly. They might think they are being direct – and, very often, they have high expectations for us as parents that we should have “gotten it”. Picking up on their hints, reading their mood change, translating their body language and responses is an ongoing parenting challenge. When children are dealing with a problem, it is more often than not displayed indirectly – making it hard for parents to know when their child is struggling. It would be wonderful if when you ask “how was your day?”, your child would just give you the play by play of the day…the good, the bad, and the ugly – but ask yourself, does your child do that? Most do not! Make yourself available to your children by listening to what they are “saying” but also “listening” to what they aren’t saying.
Parenting is Tough
We, as parents, are here to process issues with our kids – not to just say “no” or “don’t do this” or “yes do that” – but to help them work through issues so they can learn how to become independent and thoughtful decision makers. But, if you are not paying attention to their subtle and not-so-subtle cues, you may not know your child is struggling. How many times have we heard a distraught parent say, “I didn’t know my child was suffering so badly”? How many tragedies of suicide, often due to bullying and cyber bullying could be prevented if we didn’t just wait for our children to tell us what is bothering them but if we took the time to be active listeners and kept the conversation going, while simultaneously checking for indirect cues? Boy, this parenting thing can be tough! We are busy moms, juggling life; but having a real check-in with your child, no matter how busy you are, may actually put a stop to a potential problem before it gets so big it can become damaging.
My 11-Year-Old Son
Please don’t think that now that my kids are in middle school and high school, they are much more independent and they don’t need me as much as they did in elementary school. This couldn’t be further from the truth; they need us more than ever – just in a different way. I had an incident with my 11-year-old son this week. He arrived home from school and when he entered the house he seemed a little off. No quite his usual self. As the busy parent that I am (prepping dinner, answering work emails, etc.), I make a mental note and asked the famous (but often useless) question, “How was your day?” He replied, “Fine, but I’m tired.”
I mention to him that the following morning he will be letting himself out of the house and to the bus stop by himself. (This is a new responsibility that he started doing 9 days ago when school started, and he seemed to love it so far.) He responded with a straightforward – “I don’t want to.” (Quick flash thoughts that run through my head: Uh oh – What’s up now? I thought mornings were going well, I have a work meeting which I can’t cancel, why is he regressing? And yes, my blood pressure increased a little as I am trying to figure out how to resolve tomorrow morning’s problem.)
He Isn’t Telling Me Something
I stay calm and don’t respond with – “Well you have to because mommy has a meeting.” I start to gently pry, “What’s up? What part of the morning isn’t working for you?” He responds: “I don’t want to be alone in the morning.” I’m listening but still not hearing what is going on for him. Part of my brain is still processing how can I quick fix the problem for the morning…while also still aware that there might be a bigger problem. Quick tip: If you are already thinking about the solution, then you are not listening or really “hearing” what your child is trying to tell you “between the lines.” He continues: “I don’t like walking to the bus stop.” (I think to myself – what is he really saying? What happened?) I answer: “Did something happen?” He doesn’t answer, but it is gnawing at me. He was enjoying his new found responsibility – he isn’t telling me something.
Once I come up with a new plan for the morning, I tell him and I can see him physically relax. I once again leave the door open for him to share with me what’s on his mind. He approaches me and asks if he can talk with me in private. I say sure and he proceeds to tell me the story of a run in he had with a 7th grader at the bus stop. The 7th grader yelled something offensive to a girl, and my son then yelled something back at the boy (great that he stuck up for her, but perhaps with not the best response). The boy threw down his backpack and chased after my son. The boy stopped and returned to his stuff. My son said that the boy’s friends said to him, “what are you doing scaring this kid?” And, my son was scared! My son returned home and walked into the house where I saw that he wasn’t quite himself.
Would My Child Come to Me with a Problem?
Now imagine – my son only held in that story for an afternoon and an evening, and the relief he felt was visually and emotionally obvious. When a child holds on to a problem and doesn’t tell, it gets harder and harder to reach out to adults. The problems could escalate and that is when you might see your child withdrawing or behaving differently. Be active listener,be approachable and find time every day to check-in with your children by saying directly – “I will listen to what you have to say.” This may just stop a potential problem in its tracks.
Had my son not told me what happened, had I not been an available parent, this situation could have escalated– this one incident could have changed his whole outlook on going to middle school every day. I am grateful that my son knew he could talk to me…but even though he could and did, he held it in all day worrying about tomorrow’s bus stop, and the bully. Ask yourself right now, would my child tell me if something was bothering him/her? Am I an available parent? Have I checked in with my child lately? Am I paying as much attention to how they are acting as I do to what they are saying?
Circle of Safe Adults
A great way to open the lines of communication is to do an activity with children/teens called Circle of Safe Adults – every child is asked to name at least 3 adults they could go to and talk about anything that is on their minds. We recommend you do this with your child on an annual basis. Today, have this conversation with your child: Ask your child, “if you had a problem, who would you go to?” This is a great opportunity to see who they feel comfortable talking to about real issues (problems at school, divorce, death in family, etc). Make sure you are comfortable with their choices and even suggest people that they might not have thought of. Then tell your children you are here for them to talk about anything. Sometimes just reminding your child that you are there for them will give them the impetus to really talk to you.